Efforts aimed at blocking state laws that require mandatory labeling of genetically-modified foods are rekindling as Republicans in Congress this week suggested a new federal certification for GMO-free foods. The proposal is being closely watched in Vermont.
House Republicans are proposing a new government certification for foods free of genetically modified ingredients inspired by the "UDSA organic" label. It’s part of the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” first introduced in 2014 by Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo. The bill establishes a federal labeling standard for foods with genetically modified ingredients, or GMO’s. The FDA would have sole authority to require mandatory labeling on such foods if they are ever found to be unsafe or materially different from foods produced without GM ingredients.
Vermont Public Interest Research Group Consumer Protection Advocate Falko Schilling says the legislation is a major threat to mandatory labeling in Vermont because it seeks to exclusively preempt any state labeling standards. “We said loud and clear through our Legislature that we want to see mandatory labels on genetically engineered foods. Those are slated to start in 2016. If this law were to pass we would not have the ability to implement our law as the Legislature passed it and people wouldn’t be able to see whether or not their foods had been genetically engineered. That’s one of the major things that this bill seeks to do is undermine consumers’ ability to know whether or not a food is genetically engineered.”
Rural Vermont Executive Director Andrea Stander agrees that Pompeo’s bill would undermine a state’s right to enact labeling laws. “We’ve been trying to get the federal government to do it. The federal government has side-stepped it, avoided it, refused to do it. And now Pompeo’s bill would eventually say only the federal government gets to do it. States don’t get to do it. And furthermore what they’re proposing is so watered down and so designed to meet the needs of the agri-chemical industry that it would never end up giving consumers the information that they really are seeking.”
Vermont Retail and Grocers Association President Jim Harrison supports the House bill. He says like the population as a whole, his members are split regarding GMOs, but they want consistency in labeling rules. To obtain that, Harrison says a federal standard is necessary. “If we’re going to label we believe it should be done with a national uniform standard rather than a state-by-state change, which is very, very difficult and very costly to administer if every state has a different labeling program. And we’ve never said that they shouldn’t be labeled. We just think if you’re going to label it and that’s what’s deemed important by all concerned, then do it at a national and uniform level.”
The House Agriculture Committee held a public hearing Tuesday on the “Costs and Impacts of Mandatory Biotech Labeling Laws.” All the scheduled witnesses are in favor of the use of GMO’s or a voluntary federal labeling scheme.