Want to know if GMOs are in your food?

Farm Forum

There’s a growing national debate over the right to know what’s in your food…or is there?

If you read some of the national media, you’d think there was a mass consumer hysteria over whether or not genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are somehow sneaking into food boxes and impacting food safety. That’s despite the fact that FDA officials maintain the safety of genetically engineered crops used in food production.

In my rural grocery store, the primary purchasing drivers still seem to be price, safety and quality. It’s not that shoppers I’ve visited with don’t want to know what’s in their food – I often see people checking out food labels for things that can affect their health, like too much sodium and overall calorie levels. Those who are concerned about GMOs or the use of pesticides in food production are already shopping in the organic section of the store.

But thanks to our friends who passed a state GMO labeling bill in Vermont last year, food manufacturers from all states may eventually be forced to label almost all food products – except of course, those products that the state “conveniently” exempted because it either didn’t want to label or couldn’t figure out how to accurately administer the label.

For example, manufacturers would be required to label a can of vegetable soup if it contained GMOs, but not a can of vegetable beef soup. Soy milk would likely require a label, but not cow’s milk – even though it’s coming from cows fed GMOs in their feed ration. A frozen pizza could trigger the label, but not a pizza made for fresh delivery.

Sounds like you’ll now be more informed, right?

The inherent conflicts and loopholes in this new law and the likely costs involved with what could eventually be 50 different state labeling protocols have motivated grocery manufacturers and seed trait providers to take a two-pronged strategy – suing the state of Vermont and pushing a national solution that would enable, but not require voluntary labeling.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), as well as the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers, filed a lawsuit last summer against Vermont, saying the law is unconstitutional.

However, last month U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss rejected the food industry’s petition to stop Vermont’s plan. At the same time, she decided not to dismiss the case – setting the stage for ongoing legal battles.

The District Court’s ruling against GMA’s motion for a preliminary injunction means that Vermont can continue implementing the labeling law, which is set to go into effect in July 2016.

Last week, GMA filed a notice of appeal in court in Vermont federal district court – the first formal step to appeal last week’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. A legal brief outlining GMA’s grounds for the appeal will be filed with the appellate court in the weeks ahead.

Efforts to stop the Vermont law from going into effect haven’t been faring much better on Capitol Hill – until recently. Kansas GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo introduced a bill last year that went nowhere.

Now, Pompeo is back with a slightly different bill and there are signs of life on both sides of the Capitol for an effort to stop any state from requiring labeling of biotech foods. Pompeo has 37 cosponsors for his bill, including 10 Democrats.

The chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over the Pompeo bill, Fred Upton, R-Mich., recently told supporters he plans to hold a hearing and then start moving the House version (HR 1599) through subcommittee and full committee this summer.

Under the House bill, no labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients could be required unless there is a “material difference” between the biotech ingredient and its conventionally bred version. The legislation details rules for a premarket approval process run by the Food and Drug Administration for new biotech ingredients. The bill also would set up a USDA-run certification process run for foods that are labeled as non-GMO.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he wants to get support from Democrats and the Obama administration before introducing the Senate bill, but he didn’t rule out having it ready before the Memorial Day recess begins on May 22. “We really are trying to get something that is a good thoughtful start that people will get involved with in a bipartisan way,” he said.

Hoeven is working with USDA as well as commodity groups and the food industry on the legislation, he said. “I’m trying to come up with something that’s workable.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week told the Grocery Manufacturers Association that the department would offer assistance in developing a labeling bill.

But Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, who would have jurisdiction over Hoeven’s bill doesn’t appear eager to take up the issue.

Asked what his plans, Roberts, R-Kan., ticked off a list of bills that the committee already has on its to-do list. “We have a whole series of bills — CFTC, Federal Grain Inspection Service, child nutrition — all of these things that are on page 13 of anybody’s newspaper, or farther, but they have to be done,” Roberts said. The law authorizing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has already expired and laws authorizing the grain inspection program, child nutrition standards and mandatory price reporting are all set to expire Sept. 30.

Roberts went on, “If you’re going to pick a controversial bill, you might as well pick GMO, and I’m not sure where we are on that. I sympathize with the effort.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Agri-Pulse in an Open Mic interview that she has concerns that the definitions in the House bill, which “aren’t necessarily based on sound science.” She didn’t elaborate.

Agri-Pulse Senior Editor Philip Brasher contributed to this column.