Michael Conway: Senate GMO bill is 'riddled with ambiguity'

All eyes on the House as Senate passes GMO labeling bill: 'Within a few years, every GMO food will carry an on-package disclosure'

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). Picture: Senate ag committee newsroom
Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). Picture: Senate ag committee newsroom

Related tags Gmo labeling Gmo labeling bills United states senate United states house of representatives

Industry groups are lobbying leaders in the House of Representatives to allow a vote on a GMO labeling bill next week before they break for the party conventions, after the proposed legislation was passed in the Senate in a 63-30 vote last night.

The federal GMO labeling bill​ in question (S. 764) – the result of months of negotiations between Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and ag committee chairman Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) - would pre-empt and nullify all state-led GMO labeling laws including the one that has just come into effect in Vermont.

While the legislation requires mandatory disclosures on food labels, there is some flexibility over the form they can take - a compromise the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) says it can support. However, anti-GMO activists remain staunchly opposed, primarily because it allows companies to use QR codes or other symbols instead of forcing them to state on pack that a product uses GMOs.

Any changes to the bill would send it back to the Senate, causing delays, so supporters are urging the House to pass it quickly so that they do not have to adhere to the strictures of Act 120 in Vermont, which requires mandatory on-pack disclosures to which many food companies strongly object.

'Within a few years, every GMO food will carry an on-package disclosure'

Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of biotech organization BIO, said time was of the essence: “BIO urges the House of Representatives to take up and pass this bill without further modification next week so that it can be sent to President Obama for his signature before the Congress adjourns for the summer recess.”

However, Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and organic dairy company Stonyfield Farm, said the bill on the tabel “falls short of what consumers rightly expect – a simple at-a-glance GMO disclosure on the package.”

He added:  “It also contains ambiguities that could needlessly narrow the scope of biotechnologies covered and is vague on what GMO content levels require labeling and enforcement penalties for non-compliance.”

That said, the fact that “within a few years, every GMO food will carry an on-package disclosure​,” was a victory of sorts for GMO labeling advocates, he said, stressing that much now depended on how USDA (the implementing agency) to clarify the definitions in the bill (click HERE​).

Michael Conway: Bill is riddled with ambiguity

Mike Conway

House agriculture committee chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX) has also raised concerns about the wording of the bill, issuing a statement this morning alleging that it is "riddled with ambiguity and affords the Secretary a concerning level of discretion."

He added: I have sought written assurances​ from USDA on the more problematic provisions, and I appreciate the efforts of the Department to provide some level of clarity. While I will never fully support federally mandating the disclosure of information that has absolutely nothing to do with nutrition, health, or safety, it is my expectation that this legislation will be considered on the House floor next week, and it is my intention to support this bill."

The 14-page Senate GMO labeling bill (S.764)​ - if passed in the House of Representatives - will come into force two years after it is enacted.

  • Like many state-led bills, it does not require labeling on milk or meat from animals fed GM feed, or food sold in restaurant “or similar retail food establishment.”
  • It does not make any reference to ‘natural’ claims, meanwhile, which have been a feature of many state-driven GMO labeling bills, including Act 120 in Vermont.
  • According to the bill, "The term ‘bio-engineering’, and any similar term, as determined by the Secretary, with respect to a food, refers to a food (A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and (B) for which the modification could not 14 otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature."
  • Under the legislation, food companies would have the option of disclosing GMO ingredients via “text, symbol or digital link​.” Small manufacturers (which are nor defined in the text, but would get an additional year to comply) would be allowed to list a phone number for consumers to call, or a website.
  • Those using smartlabels​ or other digital disclosures would have to add a phrase such as ‘Scan here for more food information,’ but would not have to use the term ‘GMO’ on the label, something to which anti-GMO activists strongly object.
  • Small companies would have the option of putting a phone number or website URL on labels instead of the digital code.
  • As for measures designed to appease those likely unhappy with the concessions over smart labels and digital codes, the bill says that USDA must conduct a survey no later than a year after enactment date to “identify potential technological challenges​,” which may prevent some consumers from accessing the GMO disclosures via “electronic or digital disclosure methods.”
  • If USDA determines that people are not able to access the information, other options will be explored, says the bill.

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1 comment

Lawyer's happy

Posted by Wendy Repovich,

The only thing this law will do is make the lawyers rich with all the class action suits they will begin filing in two years. Our congress has much more important things to be doing than passing this law. I bet 90% couldn't accurately tell you anything about what GMO means or tell you which foods are most impacted.

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