Dec. 22, 2015
Des Moines Register reports:
The food industry, consumer groups and other stakeholders in the debate over how to label products containing genetically modified ingredients are expected to be summoned to the Agriculture Department early next month to try to resolve the contentious issue.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said there is growing urgency to reach a compromise with Vermont's law that would require labels on foods that contain genetically modified organisms expected to take effect in July. If Vermont's initiative withstands a legal challenge, proponents say it could give momentum to similar measures being considered in more than a dozen other states.
"I'm going to challenge them to get this thing fixed. I would like to avoid making food more expensive," Vilsack said in an interview from his office overlooking the National Mall. He did not specify who would be invited to the meeting.
The former Iowa governor said he is concerned about "chaos in the market" if more states implement labeling laws with differing provisions.
"That will cost the industry a substantial amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, and it will ultimately end up costing the consumer" through higher prices, Vilsack said.
The labeling argument has pitted consumer groups against major food and agribusiness companies. Both sides agree on the need for labeling of genetically engineered foods, but they have failed to agree on how, and on whether it should be mandatory or voluntary.
Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist, said it is promising that both sides are willing to talk but cautioned that a deal is unlikely to come together quickly.
"When you look at the gap between where the sides are it's quite large," said Hart. "Both sides want to keep this discussion going even though they are going to have a hard time finding common ground."
As much as 80 percent of packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Biotech crops are popular in rural America, too, with more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans coming from the popular seeds.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food and beverage companies including Kellogg and PepsiCo, and other groups have favored congressional legislation calling for voluntary GMO labeling. They argue state-by-state labeling is confusing and implies the ingredients are in some way unsafe.
Some lawmakers hoped to include a ban on state labeling laws in a $1.1 trillion spending package, but it was left out of the 2,009-page bill.
Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, called it a missed opportunity by Congress, while expressing optimism over the meeting next month.
"Food manufacturers will face exponentially increasing costs totaling hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with Vermont's GMO labeling mandate," said Bailey. "Given there is so much common ground, we welcome Secretary Vilsack's willingness to bring parties together in January to forge a compromise that Congress could pass as soon as possible."
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been mulling genetically modified labeling legislation for years, but the bills have failed to gain much traction.
A few House and Senate Republicans have pledged to focus again next year on legislation preventing states from enacting labeling laws. But Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told reporters there is not enough support in the Senate.
"It would be healthy to have a national plan in place, but at the same time it means you have to have the votes to do it. At this point there are enough people up here that think the individual states should have that opportunity to where I'm not sure we have the votes to actually put together a national plan," Rounds said.
"I wouldn't put real good odds on having something like that done before Vermont would go into effect," he said.
Advocates of mandatory labeling contend consumers have a right to know what is in the food they eat. They say an overwhelming majority of Americans want to know if their food contains GMO ingredients.
Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label it, declined to comment on the USDA meeting but said the group is willing to sit down with members of the food industry. Faber remained steadfast that any solution must be mandatory, and he would favor a uniform nationwide label rather than a gradual state-by-state rollout.
"To be effective, any disclosure has to be mandatory," Faber said. "I remain hopeful that the industry will simply give the consumers what they want. It's time to work together to craft a national solution that gives consumers what they want."