Biotech Label Bill Delayed

Ag Secretary Calls for Congress to Create a National Fix

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Corn, soybean and sugar beet farmers have a lot at stake over how the food-labeling debate advances because some food companies don't want to have to label products as having ingredients from genetically modified crops. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declined to talk specifics about the biotech food labeling bill as the Senate Agriculture Committee postponed a meeting and possible vote on such a bill.

The Senate Agriculture Committee was scheduled to hold a meeting Thursday on a bill drafted by Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., that would block states from creating their own mandatory biotech food labeling laws. Roberts introduced his bill last Friday and set the Thursday date for the committee to vote on the bill.

Corn, soybean and sugar beet farmers have a lot at stake over how the food-labeling debate advances because some food companies don't want to have to label products as having ingredients from genetically modified crops.

The Senate Ag Committee posted on its website Wednesday afternoon that the business meeting on the bill is postponed until next week. A spokeswoman for Roberts said the meeting was delayed because Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the committee, has a bill dealing with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, that will be on the Senate floor Thursday. The spokeswoman stated Roberts is ready to move ahead with his bill. Still, lobbyists watching the bill have indicated division remains between Republicans and Democrats on the committee about exactly what should be in the legislation.

The House approved similar legislation last summer. At a hearing in the House on Wednesday, Vilsack said a national fix is needed to deal with the biotech food-labeling problem.

"The reality is we are confronted with this circumstance in the market and we need to get this fixed," Vilsack said.

Talking to reporters afterward, Vilsack credited Roberts "for bringing this matter to a head, quickly." Vilsack said he believed Roberts and Stabenow were capable of compromise on the issue. "If it's crafted right, I think there will be strong bipartisan support," Vilsack said.

The secretary also agreed with people in the food industry that a national path forward on biotech food labels needs to be resolved before the Vermont law goes into effect in July. So far, Vermont is the only state with a biotech labeling law set to go into effect, but other states continue to debate legislation.

Industry groups have said chaos could ensue once the Vermont law goes into effect in early July. Vilsack said companies are going to have to segregate their supply chains for Vermont and other states that may create mandatory biotech labeling laws. The secretary said some major companies would be spending millions of dollars to deal with the labeling logistics.

"You are dealing with a wide variety of products being produced," Vilsack said.

If a national law isn't created, then each individual company will be deciding how they will handle biotech labels. "And then you are really going to have chaos because one company might have this label and one company might have this label and one company might do it this way. It begs for a national response."

Vilsack added he would be willing to decide how a final label would be created if Congress is unwilling to do it. "I will make it because I appreciate the need for some kind of common standard," he said.

Once a pathway is set for how to label food produced with ingredients from genetically modified crops, then Vilsack will need time to give the food industry a chance to better educate the public about the labels and the safety of food from biotech crops, an area Vilsack said the food industry has failed over the last 15 years to properly address.

"If you talk to the food industry, they will acknowledge they didn't do what they needed to do," Vilsack said.

Vilsack advocated for labels that could be tagged by smartphones to detail how a food was produced, as well as using a 1-800 number for consumers without smartphones to do the same. That approach, "makes a lot of sense because this is not the last time we are going to have this conversation. There are going to be other issues regarding the processing of food that are going to have to be set up."

The Senate bill has language that would require USDA to create a program to educate the public about biotechnology in food. Vilsack somewhat panned that provision by noting Congress likely wouldn't provide USDA enough funding to do the job properly. "Frankly, this Congress is not going to give us the resources to do it in a way that would be significant enough to meet a very strict standard, which is why the industry needs to be prepared to spend a lot of money, which could have been spent wisely many, many years ago, but wasn't."

Once a bill advances, it will face a different dynamic in the full Senate, given that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is still a Democratic candidate for president. Sanders criticized the Senate Agriculture Committee bill that would block his home state's legislation. Sanders said people have a right to know what they are being fed and more people are becoming more conscious about the food they eat.

"The overwhelming majority of Americans favor GMO labeling. We cannot allow the interests of Monsanto and other multinational food industry corporations to prevail," Sanders said. "I am very proud that Vermont took the lead nationally to make sure people know what is in the food they eat. Vermont and other states must be allowed to label GMOs."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton