The House Ag Committee has taken another step toward a national biotech labeling policy in its Tuesday morning approval of H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.
The bill was first introduced by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. It aims to create a certification for non-bioengineered foods and a USDA-accredited non-GMO certification process.
The bill also would nullify state GMO and biotech labeling laws, which bill sponsors say could impact interstate commerce and bring added costs to food manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
During markup, legislators also approved an amendment in the nature of a substitute, offered by Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., for H.R. 1599.
Those changes include: enhancing USDA and U.S. FDA coordination on biotech approval; establishing a public website listing all bioengineered plants; and requiring GE food developers to receive written FDA notification that any questions on food safety have been resolved before introduction of new bio-engineered products into the marketplace.
Another version of the bill was previously considered last year, and since that time ag committee members, as well as members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, heard from a variety of stakeholders in hearings regarding the bill's projected effects.
Many supporters said the bill will address cost concerns from manufacturers and retailers while addressing consumers' desire for more information, and recognize established safety of biotech foods.
"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," said House Ag Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. "The bill is a workable solution that will alleviate the potential mess of 50 states with 50 different labeling schemes."
Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, also cited concerns regarding different laws in different states, suggesting such policy "interferes with the free flow of goods across the country."
Rep. Davis, who is chairman of the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research, said misinformation about biotechnology could be spread without a national standard.
"Just as consumers can go to the grocery store and identify organic products, this bill will allow them to do the same with GMO-free products," Davis said.
Ag groups on board
The legislation is supported by several ag groups, including the American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association and American Farm Bureau.
According to ASA President Wade Cowan, the group plans to begin a "full-court press" in all 30 soybean-growing states to drum up support for the bill.
"In the coming weeks, we'll meet with every lawmaker in soybean country to urge them to support this legislation," Cowan said. "It's a bill that moves us closer to a science-based dialogue on food and farm issues, and we will encourage every member of the House to get behind it."
NCGA asserts that the action must be quick as the United States' first statewide stand-alone GMO labeling law will take effect in Vermont in July, 2016.
"The looming impacts of this situation increase the urgency of the need for Congress to act on a national labeling law," said NCGA Trade Policy and Biotechnology Action Team chair John Linder. "The House and Senate must pass federal legislation this year."
While ag groups praised the House Ag Committee's approval of H.R. 1599 Tuesday, some interest groups remain opposed to the measure.
Most notable is the Center for Food Safety, which said the bill denies Americans the right to know what's in their food, and says there's concern that it takes rights away from states to adopt their own GMO labeling laws.
Because H.R. 1599 creates a federal certification process for voluntary GMO labels, CFS says labeling of non-GE foods and organic foods is limited to only about 2% of products on the shelves and "is not a substitute for mandatory disclosure."
In lieu of the Pompeo-Butterfield bill, CFS says it supports an alternate measure that would make GMO labeling mandatory, introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
According to CFS, in 2013 and 2014 there were more than 70 GE labeling bills introduced across 30 states, with laws being passed in Maine, Connecticut and as mentioned, Vermont.