By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- After months of negotiations, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow on Thursday released a bill that requires mandatory disclosure labels for most foods with genetically modified ingredients, but gives companies varying labeling options.
The law would pre-empt state labeling laws, but gives the Agriculture secretary two years to develop the labeling standards and regime.
The agreement offers companies a choice of providing consumers with an on-package label or creating a symbol or electronic label that can be scanned with a smartphone or directs consumers to "more food information." However, if there is an electronic label, it must take consumers directly to information on genetically modified ingredients.
The bill does not require labeling of meat from animals that have eaten genetically modified feed, and products that are mostly meat do not have to be labeled. But if meat is a minor ingredient and the product contains other genetically modified ingredients, it must be labeled.
Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, and Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, have been negotiating for months after an earlier bill was defeated on the Senate floor. Food companies and ag lobbies have been clamoring for Congress to pre-empt a Vermont GMO labeling law that goes into effect July 1. Food companies also fear the possibility of other states enacting their own laws and labeling requirements.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food issued a statement praising the Senate agreement. The co-chairs of the group, representing the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, stated, "This solution increases consumer access to additional product information without stigmatizing a safe, proven technology that is relied on by American farmers. While Vermont's GMO on-package labeling mandate is set to take effect on July 1, we remain confident that, with today's Senate agreement, a national solution can be passed into law by Congress before the negative impacts of Vermont's law become pervasive."
The agreement is unlikely to appease groups that have demanded mandatory labels on all foods containing ingredients from GMO crops. The group Just Label It issued a statement noting the bill would create a mandatory disclosure system, but the group also stated disappointment that consumers would have to rely on smartphones in many cases to learn that information.
"Now, the fight will shift to the marketplace and to USDA," said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It. "This proposal falls short of what consumers rightly expect -- a simple, at-a-glance disclosure on the package."
In a statement, Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, said the compromise also "closes glaring loopholes under the Vermont law which would have allowed tens of thousands of processed food products, like frozen dinners or entrees that contain meat and GMO ingredients, to go unlabeled. Under the law in Vermont, for example, a cheese pizza could be labeled but a pepperoni pizza could not, even if it contained a GMO ingredient."
Additionally, the Senate legislation would ensure that organic producers can clearly display a "non-GMO" label in addition to the USDA organic seal.
"This proposal is also a win for our nation's farmers and food producers," Stabenow continued.
"Throughout this process I worked to ensure that any agreement would recognize the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food," she said.
"I also wanted a bill that prevents a confusing patchwork of 50 different rules in each state. This bill achieved all of those goals, and most importantly recognizes that consumers want more information about the foods they buy."
The bill amends the 1946 Agricultural Marketing Act and requires the agriculture secretary "to establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods." It gives small firms an additional year to comply with the labeling.
It will be impossible for Congress to enact the bill before a Vermont labeling law goes into effect on July 1 because the House has left until July 5. But a Senate source said the senators hope the bill comes up on the Senate floor next week and passes so that the House can bring up the bill when members return.
Still, assuming the bill gets 60 votes to pass the Senate, it would have to be conferenced with a House bill approved last summer that is much friendlier to the food and agricultural lobbies that oppose labeling their packages for foods with ingredients from biotech crops.
The Vermont law has a six-month grace period before companies would have to pay fines if the state finds that they have not labeled products properly.
But the bill's path is still unclear. The lengthy period for USDA to develop the program and the electronic labeling alternative may lead some pro-labeling advocates to criticize it.
Heritage Action, the conservative group that scores votes, has also come out against mandatory labeling, but one labeling advocate said House members are so angry with Heritage Action's constant attention to agricultural issues that they may ignore its views.
Groups on both sides of the labeling battle said they would not comment until they have seen the legislation.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who voted for a Roberts labeling bill that failed but has said she was still worried about consumers concerns, praised Roberts and Stabenow for their compromise.
"After working on this deal for months, I'm proud our efforts have produced a bipartisan compromise to give farmers and ranchers certainty, and give consumers the information they want about their food," said Heitkamp.
"Critically, this deal guarantees that any labeling doesn't stigmatize biotech food, which is safe and helps North Dakota farmers put food on the table for families in North Dakota, the United States, and the world. When the committee began working on this legislation earlier this year, I promised to strengthen it so that consumers know what's in their food, without creating unnecessary hurdles for producers. The compromise accomplishes those goals and I'm hopeful Congress can pass it quickly."
-- Senate bill to establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods: http://dld.bz/…
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.
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