OMAHA (DTN) -- To the praise of most farm groups and food processors, the House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill to require the disclosure and labeling of foods with ingredients from genetically modified crops.
After the 306-117 vote, the bill drafted in the Senate now goes to President Barack Obama after the White House said he would sign the measure.
The bill, a bipartisan compromise written by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., would require mandatory disclosure of genetically modified ingredients through on-package word labeling, a symbol or a scannable link to a website for more information. The program would be managed by USDA.
"We are now one step closer to this important agreement being signed into law," Stabenow said in a statement after the vote. "Today's vote in the House once again affirmed the importance of establishing a mandatory, nationwide label for foods containing GMOs that will allow consumers to know more about the food they eat."
Debate on the legislation in the House mainly seemed to pit Democrats versus fellow Democrats as some argued the bill strikes a balance between disclosure and avoiding unfairly threatening crop technology while others called for full disclosure of GMOs on the label.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., a former member of the House Agriculture Committee, said during floor debate that the bill is a reflection of "Congress getting it right" on food, noting the bill "is a hard-fought compromise." Noting that genetic engineering helps combat crop pests and diseases, Schrader added, "If you are concerned about climate change, you ought to be strongly in favor of this bill."
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Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., who spearheaded a voluntary labeling bill in the House last year, said the bill's "not perfect," but having a mix of potentially 50 different laws on GMO labels and disclosures would be "simply intolerable for our ranchers and farmers."
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, noted the bill creates several options for labeling and disclosure. He also countered some Democratic criticism by citing that the bill would require USDA to conduct a study, making sure consumers are getting the information they want. USDA would have other options available to tweak disclosure based on results of that study, Conaway said.
The driving force behind the bill was to preempt legislation in Vermont requiring labels for foods with ingredients from genetically modified crops. Once signed into law, USDA will have two years to come up with rules for labels and disclosure. At the same time, major food companies are already taking proactive measures to label products or reformulate them to avoid having to label those products.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Thursday's House vote means the country can now begin work on a uniform, national labeling system that will provide balanced, accurate information to consumers.
"Genetically engineered crops have a decades-long track record of safety and benefits for agricultural productivity and our environment," Duvall said. "This legislation helps to continue those benefits by avoiding the confusion of differing and potentially misleading labeling standards from state to state. The next stop is the president's desk. We are pleased that Congress has moved quickly to finish the job."
Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association, concurred, adding that the bill will allow farmers and consumers to move on from the labeling fight. "We believe this thoughtfully-crafted compromise provides consumers with the information they need, without stigmatizing a safe and sustainable food technology. We appreciate the support from House leaders to get us to this point," Wilkins said. "ASA and its state and regional affiliates now encourage President Obama to sign this bill into law. Its enactment will stop a potential patchwork of state labeling and providing farmers, producers, manufacturers and consumers peace of mind as they continue to enjoy America's safe and affordable foods."
A group of food and ag lobbies came together in early 2014 to form the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. The coalition originally backed the earlier bill that would set up a voluntary system, but threw its support behind the Senate bill last month when it became clear Senate Democrats would require some form of disclosure. The coalition's leaders praised Congress for completing work on a bill.
"After more than two years working with Senators and House members from both parties, today's vote is a resounding victory not only for consumers and common sense, but also for the tremendous coalition of agricultural and food organizations that came together in unprecedented fashion to get this solution passed," said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and co-chair of the coalition.
Chuck Conner, the other coalition co-chair and president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said farmers rely on biotechnology to help feed a growing population and the bill would ensure that biotechnology is not stigmatized because of mandatory on-package word labels.
"This is a vote for consumers and farmers and a vote against the campaign of fear and misinformation by anti-GMO activists against this safe, proven technology," Conner said. "We look forward to President Obama signing this legislation, which will immediately preempt the Vermont labeling law that is already impacting shoppers and small businesses in that state."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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