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TOP STORY, June 28, 2016

GMO labeling bill halted by Senate pact

 

By BRUCE HOTCHKISS
Senior Editor

Even as it awaited a court challenge of its constitutionality, a Vermont law, known familiarly as Act 120, which would require GMO labeling on all food products sold in the state, was scheduled to go into effect this Friday, July 1.
But last Thursday, seven days before its July 1 deadline the U.S. Senate reached agreement on a proposed national GMO labeling bill which would allow companies to disclose GMO ingredients by digital codes rather than on-package language or symbols.
Opponents of the Vermont legislation — and they are multiple — contended that it would create a patchwork of stigmatizing genetic labeling of food across the nation and dramatically impact farmers and the nation’s food supply.
Congress has been struggling with bipartisan legislation to override Act 120.
The House voted 275-150 last July to approve its Safe and Affordable Food Labeling which, in addition to preempting state biotech labeling requirements, would set up a process for labeling foods as non-GMO,
Last week’s agreement, reached between Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, would use a narrow definition of genetic engineering that would exempt the newest biotech methods such as gene editing from the national disclosure standards.
Both the definition and the option for digital codes rather than on-package labeling represent major victories for farm interests, biotech developers and food companies that have long resisted mandatory GMO labeling out of fear that it would stigmatize the technology.
The proposed legislation, which will need 60 votes to pass the Senate, would nullify Vermont’s Act 120 and would bar any other state from enacting labeling requirements that differ from the federal standards.
It all started three years ago.
In 2014, Vermont enacted legislation that requires labels on products containing genetically engineered ingredients.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, along with three other trade associations, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the state labeling act as unconstitutional.
It had been presumed that until a court struck down the Vermont law or a federal law preempted state actions, Act 120 remains in place.
Roger Lowe, executive vice president for strategic communications at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, had confirmed that ACT 120 would become law in Vermont on Friday despite the long legal challenge.
“GMA filed suit in federal court in 2014 seeking to overturn the Vermont law, and that case is still pending.” Lowe said.
“In April 2015, the federal court denied GMA’s motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the law from going into effect while the challenge was pending.
“We appealed that ruling (on the motion for preliminary injunction.) The Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in October, and has not yet issued a ruling on the appeal, and it is not known when a ruling will be issued.” Lowe said.
Farm Bureaus across the nation had lined up behind GMA and other grocery organizations in seeking to somehow override the Vermont law.
Heather Kline, speaking for the Delaware Farm Bureau, noted that small businesses and agricultural groups from across the nation had repeatedly called on the Senate to find a solution — and fast.
Pennsylvania State Senator Judy Schwank recently called on Congress to “level the playing field on GMO labeling.” DFB’s Kline said.
“Schwank highlighted a predicament that every state in our nation faces should Vermont’s law go into effect,” Klinee said.
“Here in Pennsylvania,” Schwank said, “agriculture and farming is a $7 billion-plus industry, and it’s growing, but many farmers rely on GMOs to increase crop yields and for inexpensive but nutritious feed for livestock.
“As a result of Vermont’s law, our industry could be changed forever, and the clock is ticking.”
Katie Ward, speaking for the Maryland Farm Bureau, noted that, according to the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, Vermont’s GMO law “will cost Maryland consumers a total of $1,564,040,500 a year and Maryland families an average of $1,082 a year.”
Maryland, $267 million (93 percent) of corn and $253 million (94 percent) of soybeans are genetically modified, Ward said.
“Maryland Farm Bureau is in support of a transparent dialogue with consumers by supporting greater public education about biotechnology,” she continued.
“We endorse a federal GMO labeling solution that provides meaningful information to consumers about biotech products in the marketplace, ensures consistency by creating a national standard for biotech labels, and eliminates consumer confusion about the foods they purchase.”
The Senate was not expected to consider the federal legislation before sometime this week.
The House, which is on break until July 5, also would have to approve the legislation since it differs dramatically from bill that chamber passed last July.
The new GMO standards would become mandatory after USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service finalizes a rule laying out the disclosure requirements.