March 28, 2016 – 5:00 a.m.
March 28, 2016 – 5:00 a.m.
GMO Legislation Could Fade as Companies Roll Out Labels
By Ellyn Ferguson, CQ Roll Call
The likelihood of action on a stalled Senate bill to block states from mandating the labeling of genetically modified food may be dimming now that leading food manufacturers have already started labeling to comply with Vermont's mandatory law due to take effect .
Campbell’s Soup Co. and Mars are changing labeling nationwide on all their products with GMO [genetically modified organisms] ingredients to avoid violating the state of Vermont's requirements that has inadvertently become the national standard. Even companies such as General Mills Inc., ConAgra Foods and the Kellogg Co. that back industry efforts in Congress to override state laws and create one national standard are jumping on board to avoid the $1,000 a day per product fine in Vermont, a state with 626,000 residents.
Mars Label on Peanut M&M's Candy (CQ Roll Call)
“We stand firmly with the coalition working on this issue in Washington. In order to comply with the VT law we had to label nationally because we have a national distribution system,” General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas told CQ Roll Call via email.
But Scott Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, which has pushed for mandatory labeling, said the companies' actions lessen the chances of voting for labeling legislation. “We’d rebel if Congress said that consumers now have to wait on hold or fumble through websites now that companies have actually changed their packages and the democracy still stands,” Faber said.
By the time the Senate returns from its recess on Bernie Sanders and Democrat Patrick J. Leahyboth support their state's law., at least a dozen companies are expected to have announced similar steps. This could make pending Senate legislation on the issue moot or could prod hold-out lawmakers to cross the aisle to reach an agreement. Presidential candidate
Campbell’s broke with the industry in January and backs a national mandatory labeling requirement. Mars was not part of the food industry’s Safe Affordable Food Coalition, which has lobbied for pre-emption of state mandatory labeling laws and a voluntary labeling process. Mars has started labeling its candy products and will include its food and drink brands. All the companies stressed in statements that GMO products are safe for human consumption, but cited the impending Vermont law.
Vermont's 2014 law applies to raw vegetables and fruits as well as processed foods such as crackers, cereals and soft drinks sold at retail in stores. There are eight categories of exemptions, including for foods prepared in restaurant and take-out meals.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has led the fight against mandatory labeling and his position appears to have hardened as companies announced they would meet Vermont’s requirements.
On March 16, the Kansas Republican was unable to invoke cloture and limit debate on an amendment to block states from writing mandatory labeling laws and instead create a federal voluntary labeling process overseen by the Agriculture Department. The amendment was attached to an unrelated bill (S 764).
Roberts needed 60 votes for cloture, but got a 48-49 vote. McConnell changed his vote to have the right to bring the proposal back to the floor at a later date. Shortly after the vote, Roberts indicated that he was open to further talks with Democrats dissatisfied with his amendment language. Democrats were cool to the option of the Agriculture Department creating a mandatory labeling regime if companies had not sufficiently complied under voluntary disclosure after final regulations establish the labeling process.
“Democrats blocked this compromise solution and now we see the result: big companies are making labeling decisions, but they are also making decisions to reformulate their products and avoid biotech ingredients altogether,” Roberts said in a statement. “The unwillingness to compromise by Senate opponents to my bill is about to hit both farmers and consumers directly in the pocketbook,” he added.
Roberts predicted a ripple effect. Companies, he said, would replace GMO ingredients because the labeling stigmatizes them. That would dent sales for farmers who grow major crops from GMO seeds such as corn and soybeans.
Faber and Colin O’Neil, at the Environmental Working Group, disputed Roberts’ argument that consumers would pay higher food costs. O’Neil said Mars is incorporating the Vermont requirements into planned label changes to mark its 75th anniversary this year.
Now that companies have demonstrated that they can label food packages, Faber said, it's less likely that senators would vote for Roberts’ labeling legislation, which would allow companies to direct consumers to websites or toll-free numbers for information on GMO products.
“We remain hopeful Congress will craft a national solution so consumers have information and companies have certainty,” Faber said, adding that he planned to collect and feature GMO labels on his Twitter feed.
Roger Lowe, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, argues that the companies' decisions strengthen the argument that Vermont’s law will encourage other states to adopt mandatory labeling with different requirements. That, he said, would drive up food companies’ business costs that would be passed along to consumers. Just two other states, Connecticut and Maine, have mandatory GMO labeling laws. However, those laws cannot take effect until four neighboring states enact similar laws.
“If everyone labels for Vermont and then another state passes its own law that has a different standard we’re back in the same mess again. There’s still an imperative for a national labeling standard and a federal law,” Lowe said.
Lowe said the grocery group does not think the companies’ decisions will lead the Senate to back mandatory labeling of GMO food products and beverages, which is supported by many Senate and House Democrats. A final bill must have Republican support in the House, which passed a voluntary labeling bill (HR 1599) with state pre-emption language in July 2015.
Michael Hansen, Ph.D.