House to Vote on GMO-Labeling Preemption Bill Tomorrow

On Thursday, the full U.S. House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 1599, which is officially titled “The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.” The bill (full text here) would establish a federal standard for when foods containing genetically-engineered ingredients would be labeled as such and would preempt all state laws that pertained to GMO labeling. The bill would also codify and clarify the federal process for approval of biotech traits. Although the legislation initially faced skepticism, it has gained steady momentum and bipartisan support, and is expected to pass in the House tomorrow.

GMO labeling enjoys its strongest support from the organic food industry, which has a financial stake in stigmatizing this plant breeding technology. Supporters frame the matter as a consumer “right to know” issue. Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have passed laws that would require labeling on certain food products sold in their state, and Massachusetts is expected to pass a similar measure. Vermont’s law is slated to go into effect on July 1, 2016, while Maine and Connecticut’s measures would not go into effect until a critical mass of other states pass GMO labeling laws.

While these state labeling measures represent the high-water mark for the pro-labeling proponents, the tide has started to turn against the mandatory GMO labeling movement. The popular press has joined the scientific community in pointing out that there is no scientific basis for singling out genetic modification as a plant breeding process that warrants labeling.

H.R. 1599 would prevent state governments from enacting GMO labeling laws, preventing the possibility of a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling laws -- a costly nightmare for food manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. It would also codify federal policy for GMO labeling, which currently requires labeling for genetically-engineered products that are materially different from their conventional counterparts in terms of “functional, nutritional, or compositional characteristics.”

On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee developed the rules package for H.R. 1599. The following amendments will receive a floor vote:

  • DeLauro (D-CT) – Prohibit the use of the term “natural” on products containing genetically-engineered ingredients
  • Pingree (D-ME) – Strike the entire bill and add in a USDA non-GMO certification program
  • DeFazio (D-OR) – Require that if a U.S. company or subsidiary labels their product as containing GMOs in any foreign country they must label the product in the same manner as the U.S.
  • Huffman (D-CA) – Ensure tribal sovereignty to prohibit or restrict the cultivation of genetically engineered plants on tribal lands.

The Pingree and DeFazio amendments are not expected to pass the House because they would essentially gut H.R. 1599. It should also be noted that the language contained in Rep. DeLauro’s amendment has been ruled unconstitutional under the First Amendment in litigation challenging Vermont’s GMO labeling law. The fate of Rep. Huffman’s amendment is unclear. Similar amendments that would have allowed states and localities to restrict or prohibit GMO cultivation did not survive the rules committee.

Although H.R. 1599 is likely to pass in the House of Representatives, it faces an uphill challenge in the Senate. Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) is developing similar legislation for the Senate to consider. However, it is unclear if the Senate will take up this matter in the near future.

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