The bill originally sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., would require the Food and Drug Administration to set up a federal labeling standard, but restrict labeling for such foods to products when FDA deems there may be a health or safety risk.
The bill was quickly adopted Tuesday morning in a voice vote by the committee.
The bill also would allow a “non-bioengineered food certification” label that would be overseen by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, similar to the USDA organic label. Supporters of the bill say this voluntary labeling measure would help consumers who wish to buy foods free of genetically modified crops.
Language was also added to the bill that would ensure that dairy and meat products would only be considered “GMO-free” if those animals are fed grains from non-biotech crops.
Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have passed biotech labeling laws. Vermont is moving ahead with a mandate as early as next year while Connecticut and Maine set rules requiring other states to mandate such labels before theirs would go into effect.
The bill, H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, has strong support from major food companies and agricultural groups that support biotechnology. A coalition of roughly 370 food companies and trade associations backs the bill.
“The House Agriculture Committee has taken an important step in moving forward legislation to ensure that farmer co-ops, their producer-owners and other agribusinesses have the certainty of a uniform, national standard when it comes to labeling foods made with biotech-derived ingredients,” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “H.R. 1599 would eliminate the possibility of a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws, something that would increase costs and reduce choices for both farmers and consumers.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said in an opening statement that the potential patchwork of biotech labeling laws across the country would pose a threat to interstate commerce. He specifically pointed to the implementation going on in Vermont.
“We all recognize that the overwhelming consensus within the science community is that these biotech products are safe,” Conaway said. “We likewise understand that each and every biotech product in the marketplace today has been reviewed thorough a voluntary food safety consultation process at the Food and Drug Administration. To provide consumers with an affirmation of food safety, this legislation would require technology providers to make use of this consultation process by making it an unlawful act to commercialize the product if they don’t.”
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., stated he believes the bill creates a workable solution that would alleviate the potential of 50 states with 50 different labeling schemes. The bill deals with that issue through a voluntary national labeling program.
“Consumers increasingly want to know more about where their food comes from and how it is produced. I think H.R. 1599 satisfies that demand while also recognizing what we know about the safety of the foods that our farmers produce,” Peterson said.
Groups such as the National Corn Growers Association and American Soybean Association praised the committee and called on the House of Representatives to quickly bring the bill to the floor.
“Consumers continue to demand more transparency and accountability from food producers. This bill ensures that a multi-state patchwork of state regulations is avoided, as the wide range of potential individual and conflicting non-GMO labeling schemes,” said Wade Cowan, ASA president and a soybean farmer from Brownfield, Texas.
Still, the bill did not pass without criticism from lawmakers who support measures that would require further labeling of foods with ingredients from biotech crops. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., noted 64 other countries have laws requiring labels for foods from genetically modified organisms.
“I’m not here to argue about the science of GMOs. To me, this is about transparency and people wanting to know what’s in their food,” McGovern said.
McGovern added that the bill would also allow foods from biotech crops to be labeled as “natural,” which he disputed would be the case.
Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., also said he opposed the bill. Gibson said he supports a national biotech labeling standard, but he said this bill does not actually do that. Consumers in his district support labeling foods from biotech products, he said.
“People want to know. I hear from my constituents and they are concerned and want to know,” Gibson said. He added, “I will vote for a national standard, but I will not vote for this.”
Environmental and non-biotech groups opposed to the bill planned an afternoon press conference on Tuesday to denounce the measure.