The U.S. House of Representatives on July 23, by a vote of 275 to 150, approved the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599). The bill aims to provide national uniformity regarding the labeling of food derived from genetically engineered plants and prevent a patchwork of conflicting state or local labeling laws that supporters believe threatens to interfere with interstate and foreign commerce. (See page 62 for post-vote reaction.)
In a letter to members of Congress dated July 21, two days ahead of the vote, nearly 500 associations and organizations affiliated with the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food urged passage of the bill.
“We believe that it is imperative that Congress pass a bipartisan bill this year to ensure people across our nation continue to have access to consistent science-based standards for food labeling,” the letter said.
The legislation, which also is referred to by the acronym SAFE, was introduced on March 25 by Representatives Mike Pompeo of Kansas and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina. It was referred to both the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the agriculture committee. The legislation was modified with the aim of clarification following discussions between the two committees, and the version passed by the agriculture committee on July 14 and by the full House July 23 was in the form of an amendment in the nature of a substitute introduced by Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois, chairman of the agriculture committee’s biotechnology, horticulture, and research subcommittee.
The SAFE bill would require labeling of a food produced from a genetically engineered plant only if the Secretary of Health and Human Services determines there is a “material difference in the functional, nutritional, or compositional characteristics, allergenicity or other attributes between the food so produced and its comparable food, and the disclosure of such material difference is necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label or labeling of the food so produced from being false or misleading.”
The bill would prohibit states or municipalities from establishing their own labeling requirements for bioengineered foods to ensure there is one uniform standard nationwide.
In an exchange of letters on July 15 between Mr. Conaway and Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mr. Upton said his committee would forgo consideration of the bill in order to speed its way to the House floor. At the same time, Mr. Upton noted his committee’s “jurisdictional interests over this and similar legislation are in no way diminished or altered. In addition, the committee reserves the right to seek conferees on H.R. 1599 and requests your support when such a request is made.” Mr. Conaway agreed to the conditions, which paved the way for the July 23 vote.
As yet, no companion bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food’s letter to Congress said certain interest groups across the country were promoting state-level labeling mandates that would exacerbate consumer confusion and increase food prices.
“By putting a stop to the patchwork of state-based labeling requirements, the SAFE act will protect consumers from unpredictable price variations and protect farmers and food manufacturers from having to contend with inconsistent and costly regulations,” the letter stated.
The coalition letter added, “The proposed legislation also would improve clarity for foods carrying a G.M.O.-free label and provide uniform rules by creating a national certification program for foods that have been produced without bioengineering.”
The Center for Food Safety (C.F.S.) organized opposition to the bill. Ahead of the House vote, the center stated, “Without a doubt, the underlying bill represents a major threat to state and local government authority. As written, H.R. 1599 has sweeping preemptive effect, which could negate well over 130 existing statutes, regulations, and ordinances in 43 states at the state and municipal level. This radical federal overreach could take away local governments’ ability to enact measures to address the specific locality’s cultural, agricultural, and ecological concerns, issues that have long been recognized as falling under local governments’ traditional police powers.”
The C.F.S. pointed to a second preemption provision in the bill that it said would cover any laws that would in any way, directly or indirectly, affect the sales of genetically engineered products in a jurisdiction.
“Whether one is for or against the general purposes of this bill, it should be insisted that appropriate time be taken for the proper legal analysis and clear legislative language that our farmers, seed dealers, and local and state officials deserve,” the C.F.S. said.