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GMO Labeling Bill Clears House to Broad Industry Acclaim

Blunting a potentially pricey patchwork of state regulations, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation that will create the first national standard for labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients. Overwhelmingly approved by a vote of 306-117, the Roberts-Stabenow Biotech Labeling Act was cleared ahead of a recess scheduled to start at the end of this week, and was greeted with applause by various food and grocery industry groups.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill, which will require most food products to carry a text label, symbol or QR code indicating whether the food contains GMOs. The U.S. Agriculture Department will the have two years to write the rules.

Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute, said: "The grocery industry welcomes this historic legislation that will both set a precedent for clarity in commerce and open up new avenues for providing food shoppers access to the information they want about the foods they enjoy and in the manner that is most convenient for them to access it." She continued, "Every vote today was a vote in support of consumer confidence in the food supply.”

Noting that legislation mirrors increasing consumer interest in the origins and ingredients of their food, Sarasin said a "single national labeling standard circumvents all disadvantages that a multitude of conflicting state GMO labeling laws would inevitably create." She also praised the bill's companion benefits of eliminating the need for warehouses to segregate products based on varying state requirements, and small-business owners' ability "to continue sourcing the variety of products their customers want to buy.”

Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, was equally enthusiastic. “This is a win-win for every American family in every state,” said Bailey, who also serves as co-chair of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF), made up of industry associations that supported the bill's passage. “The legislation ensures that consumers get more information about genetically engineered ingredients, prevents a patchwork of confusing and costly state labeling mandates, and provides the same labeling rules to shoppers regardless of where they live or shop. It is the right solution to increase disclosure of information that consumers are seeking without stigmatizing a safe technology that feeds a hungry and growing world.”

Peter J. Larkin, president and CEO of the National Grocers Association, also applauded the bill, which he said "offers the needed certainty for stakeholders throughout the food supply chain, and more importantly for consumers." Larkin offered special kudos to NGA's independent grocer membership,\ “for their engagement in the political process, which resulted in thousands of calls and letters sent to Capitol Hill.”

'Much-needed Clarity' Provided

“American farmers rely on agriculture biotechnology to help feed a rapidly growing world population, and this bill ensures that genetically engineered crops will not be stigmatized due to mandatory on-pack labels,” observed Charles F. Conner, CFSAF co-chair and president and CEO of the Washington-based National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “This is a vote for consumers and farmers and a vote against the campaign of fear and misinformation by anti-GMO activists against this safe, proven technology.”

Earlier this week, the coalition revealed that 1,101 organizations and companies had signed a letter urging the House to pass the bill, including Costco, Del Monte Foods, DuPont, General Mills, Hormel Foods, Land O' Lakes Inc., Monsanto Co., Nestle USA, PepsiCo Inc., The Kraft Heinz Co., Unilever and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. A similar letter was sent before the Senate vote, which took place last week.

"We support enactment of this measure because we believe it provides much-needed clarity for the food and agriculture sector, as well as consumers," affirmed Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the Washington-based United Fresh Produce Association. "The bill puts the requirement for labeling on those companies that introduce these foods into the marketplace, which may reduce the pressure on companies to seek 'non-GMO' verified labeling. At the same time, the bill provides significant flexibility to companies with genetically engineered foods as to the manner of labeling, whether on package text, symbol or link to a website."

“We do not anticipate this bill having an immediate impact on the fresh produce industry, since the vast majority of fruits and vegetables are not grown from genetically modified seeds,” pointed out Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, which represents local and regional family produce farmers in Arizona, California and Colorado. “However, we believe this bill will ultimately provide a platform for the food industry to educate consumers on the current and potential benefits of genetically modified foods. The science already tells us they are safe to eat, and they are already helping us grow more food while protecting the environment and reducing our dependence on natural resources.”

Noting that the legislation would “give consumers access to more product information than ever before without stigmatizing a safe and proven technology that is a central part of modern food production,” J. David Carlin, SVP of legislative affairs and economic policy at Washington-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) added, “This nationwide disclosure system for GMOs will bring much-needed consistency and additional transparency to the marketplace.”

"After a long two years of working with legislators on the GMO issue we finally have legislation that gives the industry and consumers clarity," said Tom Dempsey, president and CEO of Arlington-based SNAC International, formerly the Snack Food Association. "Manufacturers avoided a patchwork of potentially contradictory state laws and consumers have product transparency. The work of SNAC International members with their legislators was invaluable in this process."

“Advancing this legislation, with bipartisan support, bolsters consumer confidence while giving frozen food and beverage makers the certainty they require to meet the needs of America’s consumers," noted Alison Bodor, president and CEO of the McLean, Va.-based American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI).

Representatives of the various trade associations all urged President Barack Obama to sign the bill into law as soon as possible, which, according to a Bloomberg report this week, he plans to do.

Just Label It Wary of 'Loopholes'

Despite the generally enthusiastic support for the bill among many food industry groups, other organizations strenuously oppose the legislation, finding it deeply flawed.

“Just Label It does not support the Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling compromise,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the pro-labeling group and Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm, explaining that the bill “falls short of what consumers rightly expect – a simple at-a-glance GMO disclosure on the package. What’s more, the Roberts-Stabenow compromise contains loopholes that could limit the number of products that must carry a GMO disclosure. While we support a national, mandatory GMO labeling system, the legislation … does not give American consumers the same simple disclosure used in 64 other nations.”

“While we support a national, mandatory GMO labeling system, we cannot support this proposal because food companies would be permitted to make a GMO disclosure through a means that is unavailable or unfamiliar to many Americans,” agreed a statement from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), based in Washington. “While the proposal clearly intends to require a disclosure on more foods than are covered by state GMO labeling laws, we are concerned that loopholes could undermine Congress’ intent.”

What’s more, the legislation has caused a division within the organic food industry itself, with the Maine-based Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) withdrawing its membership from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) as a result of what it called OTA’s “duplicity towards organic farmers and consumers when a small number of OTA board members endorsed the bill that would pre-empt existing strong state GMO labeling laws that OSGATA claims are widely supported by the organic community and 90 percent of consumers,” according to a recent report in Food Logistics.

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