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Labeling law approved by House

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on July 14 passed the bill setting up a federal system of labeling genetically modified foods, setting the stage for the bill to go to President Barack Obama, who has already said he will sign it. 

The House vote was 307 to 117. The Senate passed it earlier.

The bill is a bipartisan compromise, negotiated by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. It preempts state labeling laws, including the one that has already gone into effect in Vermont, and sets up a federal labeling system to be managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

The bill requires “mandatory disclosure” of genetically modified ingredients, but companies will have a choice of on-package word labeling, a symbol or a scannable QR code linked to a website that provides more information.

The food industry reluctantly accepted the mandatory disclosure, but critics of the bill say it’s weak because it doesn’t require on-package labeling and does not have contact with certain foods that have a relationship with genetic modification.

Meat from animals fed genetically modified seed will not require labeling.

The bill also says there should be genetically modified material in the food to require labeling. That would seem to leave out beet sugar from beets grown from genetically modified seed, since the final sugar does not contain genetically modified material, but USDA’s general counsel said it will be up to the Agriculture Secretary to decide what foods are covered.

The debate over how the mandatory disclosure program will be structured moves to the rulemaking process.

Critics of the bill, including the Environmental Working Group and Just Label It, said they intend to focus on rulemaking to clarify the disclosure and make the coverage of products as broad as possible.

The bill gives USDA-ARS two years to develop the rule.

USDA’s general counsel said the bill immediately preempts state labeling laws, such as the one in Vermont, but it will be interesting to see if labeling advocates argue in court that preemption should begin only after the USDA rule is in effect.

It’s not clear how the industry will handle rulemaking. The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, the industry group that includes the Grocery Manufacturers Association, major food companies and farm groups, prevailed in the debate after years of organizing, and the expenditure of millions of dollars and decisions of some companies, such as Campbell’s and Mars, to begin labeling.

Asked whether the coalition would continue to exist, Claire Parker, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said “no decisions have been made, but the coalition was really unprecedented and effective, so we expect the group will build on the collaboration in some form as other issues of mutual interest arise.”

Praise and opposition

Farm and agribusiness groups issued news releases praising the bill and urging Obama to sign it.

Food and Water Watch issued a release urging Obama to veto it, as did Rev. Jesse Jackson. In a letter distributed by the Center for Food Safety, Jackson said the bill is discriminatory because lower income people do not have smartphones and cannot access information by scanning a package label, one of the options in the bill for manufacturers to provide GMO information.

But the White House said in a statement the president “will sign the bill.”

Earlier, the White House said he would sign it as long as the Senate version was not changed.

Roberts and Stabenow each issued news releases touting the fact the House had passed their bill.

House members including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said they still prefer the voluntary approach in the bill that Rep Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., introduced and pushed through the House.