GMOs: Congress may block states from requiring labeling

A food fight is under way in Congress that could decide whether genetically engineered food products are labeled as such. (Tweet This)

Customers shop the produce aisle at a Kroger grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky.
Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Customers shop the produce aisle at a Kroger grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky.

Food industry-backed H.R. 1599 would make the labeling of food products derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) voluntary for food companies, and it would block individual states or municipalities from requiring GMO labeling.

The bill, which has broad GOP support, would preempt a labeling law in one state—Vermont—that's set to go into effect next year. The House bill made it through the House Agriculture Committee last week and could be voted on by the full chamber on Thursday.

Connecticut and Maine also have passed statutes requiring GMO labeling, but both of those states have "trigger clauses" attached to their measures, meaning that their own laws would go into effect only if other states put rules into effect. The House legislation would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to create national labeling guidelines.

One of H.R. 1599's critics, Rep. Jim McGovern of the House Agriculture Committee, a Democrat of Massachusetts, said he finds "it ironic that so many of my Republican colleagues espouse state's rights, but the bill before us does just the opposite. It preempts states from establishing their own labeling laws and it would invalidate laws already passed in states like Vermont, Maine and Connecticut."

"The Vermont law that will be fully enacted on July 1, 2016, is one major reason why this is such an urgent situation for our companies. That one law really put the entire food supply, especially food manufacturers, in a very difficult position." -Michael Gruber, Grocery Manufacturers Association

GOP defenders of the bill point to the importance of having a single, federally mandated standard.

"We've got a number of states that are taking wildly different approaches to putting restrictions on the capacity for technology to continue to enter the food chain in a safe and affordable way, and that won¹t work," said Rep. Mike Pompeo, the Kansas Republican who introduced H.R. 1599, more formally called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.

Pompeo's bill is supported by the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, a lobbying organization made up of groups from the food, beverage and agribusiness, seed and biotech industries.

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"The Vermont law that will be fully enacted on July 1, 2016, is one major reason why this is such an urgent situation for our companies," said Michael Gruber, a senior vice president for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Washington and a member of the coalition. "That one law really put the entire food supply, especially food manufacturers, in a very difficult position."

"What's clear is that the food industry and agrochemical companies are willing to do whatever it takes to keep consumers in the dark," said Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, a consumer group supporting mandatory GMO labeling.

O'Neil said opinion surveys show around 90 percent of Americans favor requiring labels on GMO foods, although Pompeo countered that those surveys were "inherently flawed" since participants were not told "they'd have to pay $500 a year or more to have that labeling."

Monsanto CEO on GMO controversy
Monsanto CEO on GMO controversy   

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said the state's mandatory GMO labeling statute is scheduled to go into effect next year, although he conceded some legal challenges remain. When asked about H.R. 1599, Sorrell responded: "What's happening in the House is really at the request of Monsanto and the grocery manufacturers. It would be most unfortunate if this powerful food industry has this much clout in the Congress that they can override the desire of Vermont and other states and consumers."

An official from Monsanto deferred questions on the bill to the lobbying group pushing the bill.

Meanwhile, Pompeo said he is "very confident" of having enough votes to pass H.R. 1599. "When members of Congress stare at this and see that 475 groups have come out in support of this legislation—from the Vermont Farm Bureau to groups across the country—I think we'll manage to get this done in the Senate, too."

Pompeo's bill would give food companies the option to label foods that are non-GMO, but it would not require them to disclose it when products contain GMO ingredients.

"Quite frankly, it makes me nervous when I hear from some in the industry who keep pushing back hard against labeling," McGovern told the committee before the panel's vote. "It's like, 'What are they trying to hide?' "