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Attorney: Chances for Roberts bill ‘slim’

As Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., plans to bring up his bill to ban state labeling of genetically modified foods for a markup on Thursday, a prominent Washington attorney said here that the chances of the bill becoming law “are slim.”

Stanley Abramson, a partner in the firm Arent Fox LLP who has long worked on science issues, made the statement in response to a question during a panel discussion on GMO labeling at the International Sweetener Colloquium, a gathering of industrial sweetener users and suppliers.

Abramson did not elaborate on his reasoning, but he had just finished giving a history of the labeling debate including the Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine labeling laws and the bills introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and Roberts to ban state labeling. The Vermont law will go into effect on July 1 unless Congress or the courts stop it.

GMO labeling has been a major subject of discussion at the colloquium, which is sponsored by the Sweetener Users Association and the International Dairy Foods Association.

Beet sugar farmers use genetically modified seed, while cane growers do not. The beet sugar farmers are opposed to state labeling while companies that sell cane sugar are increasingly labeling their sugar as GMO-free.

An executive with one cane refining company said it wants to label its sugar GMO-free, but must wait as long as six months to a year because the Non GMO Project, which certifies products as GMO-free, has so many other companies in line ahead of it.

During the panel discussion, Nina Federoff, senior science adviser at OFW Law, said that trying to convince the general public that genetic modification is a worthy technology has been frustrating, but that she believes more and more journalists are telling both sides of the story.

The subject also came up when Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, discussed consumers’ demands for more transparency from food companies.

Arnot told The Hagstrom Report that “it would make more sense for the industry to work toward a compromise solution” on labeling that would not be specific to GMOs. “Anytime you limit access to information, it is counter to consumer interests.”

But Arnot said the solution should not be labeling on the package because there is only so much “real estate” on the label and that consumers are likely to demand more information be published next year. He suggested either electronic labeling or information provided on company websites.

Roberts has said the bill is a chairman’s mark that will be subject to amendment. The bill as written has no Democratic support. Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has attempted to work with Roberts on a compromise, but none has been achieved so far.

Politico reported today that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a Democratic candidate for president, will do everything in his power to defend the Vermont labeling law but that he is also working with Stabenow and advocates on possible changes to the Roberts measure.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans favor GMO labeling,” Sanders said in a statement, according to the Politico report. “We cannot allow the interests of Monsanto and other multi-national food industry corporations to prevail. I am very proud that Vermont took the lead nationally to make sure people know what is in the food they eat. Vermont and other states must be allowed to label GMOs.”

Sanders also opposes electronic labeling and wants disclosures printed directly on food packages, like those called for in his state’s law, Politico said.

Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation board voted today to support Roberts’s bill, while the National Farmers Union announced its opposition.

Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said, “The bill would pre-empt a patchwork of mandatory and misleading state GMO labeling laws founded more on scare tactics than science, and we must move this process forward.”

Duvall added, however, that AFBF “would closely monitor the bill’s progress to ensure it is compatible with AFBF’s grassroots policy.”

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said that, even though many NFU members have incorporated genetically modified organisms into their farming operations, “NFU also values consumer rights, including the ability of consumers to have access to as much pertinent information as they want to know about their food.

“We support mandatory labeling of foods derived from genetically engineered plants, although we do not have policy on what such labeling should look like. As such, NFU opposes the proposed GMO labeling bill in its current form,” Johnson added.

Barbara Glenn, CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said that the organization, which represents elected and appointed state agriculture commissioners, supports the Roberts bill as well as the Pompeo bill that passed the House last July.

–The Hagstrom Report


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