Clock is ticking on national G.M.O. labeling initiative

by Jay Sjerven
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Food industry associations voiced disappointment that the revenue and spending legislation for fiscal 2016 approved by Congress and signed into law on Dec. 18 by President Barack Obama failed to contain provisions establishing nationwide voluntary labeling of bioengineered foods and ingredients that would have preempted looming state and local measures requiring mandatory labeling. Passing the Consolidated Appropriations Act was the last order of business before Congress recessed for the holidays, hence the last chance to secure a national voluntary labeling measure this year.

At the same time, food companies were encouraged that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack intends to gather stakeholders to discuss the labeling controversy in January.

“I’m going to challenge them to get this thing fixed,” Secretary Vilsack told the Des Moines Register. “I would like to avoid making food more expensive.”

Mr. Vilsack said he was concerned about chaos in the market should individual states implement labeling laws with differing provisions. He added this would add costs that ultimately would be passed onto the consumer.

Time was running short for the parties to find a compromise, with Vermont’s mandatory G.M.O. labeling law scheduled to take effect in July 2016.

Secretary Vilsack to gather stakeholders to seek compromise.

“It is unfortunate that Congress has failed to take action this year to stop a patchwork of costly and misleading state labeling mandates, an issue of tremendous importance to consumers, farmers, food and beverage companies,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (G.M.A.). “In January, food manufacturers will face exponentially increasing costs totaling hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with Vermont’s G.M.O. labeling mandate.

“There is bipartisan agreement that genetic engineering should not be stigmatized — it is the technology that feeds a hungry and growing world,” Ms. Bailey said. “There is bipartisan agreement that consumers should have access to consistent and helpful information about genetic engineering. There is bipartisan agreement that a 50-state patchwork of laws is disastrous for farmers, food companies and consumers. Given there is so much common ground, we welcome Secretary Vilsack’s willingness to bring parties together in January to forge a compromise that Congress could pass as soon as possible. We are hopeful that compromise will establish a uniform national standard for foods made with genetically engineered crops.”

The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, of which the G.M.A. is a member, which champions voluntary G.M.O. labeling, said, “While the U.S. House of Representatives worked in a bipartisan fashion to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act in July with the support of 45 Democrats, action stalled in the U.S. Senate. The coalition calls on members of Congress to work to find agreement and pass legislation to address this issue immediately when they return in January.”

The Food Marketing Institute said, “While we conclude the 2015 legislative session on several positive notes, we were extremely disappointed that lawmakers did not include a federal standard for G.M.O. labeling. Still, we remain positive, since leaders of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee have already indicated that they will press for action in January, and U.S.D.A. Secretary Tom Vilsack has indicated his willingness to also engage.”

Colin O’Neil, director of agricultural policy for the Environmental Working Group, which advocates mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, said, “We applaud congressional leaders for rejecting efforts to block state G.M.O. labeling laws in the omnibus. An end-of-the-year must-pass spending bill is the wrong vehicle to address an issue as important as our right to know what’s in our food and how it’s grown.

“We need a national, mandatory G.M.O. disclosure system that works for consumers but does not stigmatize G.M.O.s. Americans simply want the right to know what’s in our food — just like consumers in 64 other nations.”

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm and chairman of Just Label It, added, “In the last three years, major food and biotech companies have spent more than $200 million — $75 million this year alone — trying to block our right to know what’s in our food or how it is grown, by promoting voluntary G.M.O. disclosure. It is now time for the food industry to instead work with consumers and advocates to craft a mutually acceptable mandatory, national G.M.O. disclosure system that respects Americans’ rights to know and to choose. The Just Label It coalition will be willing participants in finding such a solution.”

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