Vilsack asks Congress to pass mandatory GMO labeling or to authorize USDA to do the job | TSLN.com

Vilsack asks Congress to pass mandatory GMO labeling or to authorize USDA to do the job

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack continued his campaign to convince Congress to pass mandatory "labeling" of foods with genetically modified ingredients — although labeling might not be the right term since he is calling for the information to be provided on a "smart" label that people could access through their cell phones, through an 800 number or on a website.

In a speech to the National Farmers Union convention, Vilsack said that if Congress finds it impossible to reach agreement on a labeling system, it should authorize the Agriculture Department to do the job.

"If Congress is unwilling to make these tough decisions … then delegate the responsibility to the Department of Agriculture," Vilsack said. "We'll be happy to make the tough decision."

In his speech, Vilsack repeated statements he made Friday at the Commodity Classic that labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms needs to be mandatory, but he did not say today, as he did then, that mandatory labeling must be part of the bill in order to get 60 votes in the Senate to end debate so it can be passed.

“If Congress is unwilling to make these tough decisions … then delegate the responsibility to the Department of Agriculture. We’ll be happy to make the tough decision.” Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary

Instead, he said a mandatory system is better than voluntary to avoid "thousands of companies making decisions for themselves," which would create confusion in the marketplace and for consumers.

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The information source could be "an 800 number, a website, or a smart label," he said. The system should be planned to include a period "to give consumers time to know it is going into effect and at the end of that time period, basically provide it."

At a news conference after his speech, Vilsack said he wanted to "emphasize the urgency of getting this done" because the Vermont law is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.

"The better way is for Congress to act," Vilsack said, but if Congress can't, USDA is ready to step in.

Vilsack described the difference between what USDA would do with a fuller bill from Congress compared with a delegation from Congress as the difference between a small rulemaking process versus a larger one.

Even though the Obama administration has less than a year left in office, Vilsack said he would be "absolutely committed" to getting the system in place before the administration leaves office in January, and that he would "move heaven and earth to get this done because I feel so strongly that it needs to be done and there is a path forward."

"This is not, in my view, an overly complex issue," Vilsack said. "We don't need to overthink this."

The path forward, he said, should respect both the consumer's desire for more information and the need to avoid indicating that GMOs are unsafe.

In his speech, Vilsack told NFU members that the labeling question "has been an interesting journey we have been on."

He noted that 17 years ago when he was the Democratic governor of Iowa and Mike Johnanns was the Republican governor of Nebraska, they formed a partnership "to try to educate the industry on what needed for biotech to be accepted — and we are still doing it."

The challenge, Vilsack said, is to balance the need to make sure that consumers "understand the food they are eating is safe" and the consumers' interest "in knowing what is in their food."

"I am convinced we are not dealing with an unsafe product here," he said.

Labels on packages, Vilsack said, have been used for nutrition information such as calories or sodium or for ingredients so that consumers know to avoid the food if they have a problem such as an allergy.

But biotech labeling, he said, is not about nutrition or an ingredient warning, but "about the process."

"With the vast majority people having smartphones, you could provide a labeling system that would be through smartphone or scanner that would not convey a warning," Vilsack said, but he added that the label should be mandatory.

Having 50 state regulations and individual companies labeling "will create confusion and raise food prices. Congress needs to address this."

The Senate Agriculture Committee has approved a bill written by Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., that would ban state labels and establish a voluntary federal labeling system. Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who favors mandatory labeling, said that Congress can solve the problem if it has the will.

The Coalition for a Safe Affordable Food Supply, an industry group, favors voluntary labeling at the federal level while the organic food industry and consumer groups favor mandatory labeling.

–The Hagstrom Report

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