Vilsack praises Stabenow COOL effort, prefers Hersey app to Pompeo bill
July 17, 2015
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Hagstrom Report today that he likes the voluntary country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork proposal Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has made to address the conflict with the World Trade Organization over the current mandatory labeling.
A WTO panel has found the U.S. system of country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork discriminates against Canadian and Mexican producers because it leads U.S. slaughterhouses to segregate U.S. cattle and hogs from Canadian and Mexican animals and therefore to pay less for the Canadian and Mexican animals or not buy them at all.
Canada and Mexico are seeking WTO approval to impose retaliatory tariffs on a range of goods if the United States does not resolve the issue.
The House has voted to repeal country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork and also for chicken and ground beef and pork, but Senate agriculture leaders have said there are not enough votes for full repeal in that chamber.
In an interview on the sidelines of a USDA event, Vilsack said there are two paths forward: repeal or voluntary labeling. Vilsack said he sees "no problem with voluntary labeling and that it should address the segregation issue," but he acknowledged that Canadian and Mexican officials have said it would not satisfy them.
He also praised Stabenow for trying to find "the middle ground" in a highly partisan atmosphere.
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Vilsack also said that the Obama administration has not taken a position on the bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., to stop the states from labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients and to move voluntary labeling to USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.
The House Agriculture Committee passed the bill earlier this week and the bill is expected to move to the House floor possibly as early as next week after the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which had jurisdiction over the matter, waives its right to a markup.
But Vilsack said, that while the administration has not taken a position, he personally understands "the need for consistency and to avoid the confusion of up to 50 ways of labeling."
But he said he does not understand how moving to a voluntary label at the federal level deals with the question of the 50 different state labels. Federal voluntary labeling could lead to 300,000 different labeling systems, he said, referring to all the products that are sold in grocery stores.
Vilsack has suggested for more than a year than the answer to the GMO labeling question is for food companies to list genetically modified ingredients on an app that customers can access easily. Vilsack praised the Hershey candy company's announcement that it plans to provide detailed ingredient information on an app.
"I think we should be futuristic," Vilsack said, adding that the app can provide the information without giving the impression that the food contains the GMOs is unsafe. If food companies developed a single app system to list ingredients including GMOS, he said, then "states wouldn't taken action."
Hershey has not said whether it will include information on whether ingredients are genetically modified, but said in an email to The Hagstrom Report today that "We are providing our innovation expertise in food, digital, and communications as well as our deep consumer insights to create an innovative new QR code and website-driven platform that we are calling 'smart labels.' "
"This platform will be responsive, simple, easily accessed and easily read by consumers spanning all educational and socio-economic backgrounds," it said.
"The best part about QR codes is they are not restricted by size or space unlike on-package labeling. They will allow Hershey or any company that adopts this new standard to share nutritional information and ingredients, allergens, and information such as whether ingredients are from natural sources or if a product is gluten-free. And because it is web-based, this information can also be easily updated to include new, more in-depth data as needed."
The company added, "Smart Labels will begin appearing on our holiday Hershey's Kisses later this year as the first step in offering consumers more information about their food."
Hershey also said, "The food transparency movement is driving a healthy dialog between consumers, business and government. It's spurring the creation of these smart tools that will empower consumers to be confident about the food choices they make."
"We believe that the food transparency movement is a major milestone marking a new stage in how food companies more openly communicate with consumers. It's time for government and industry to join together and support a shared technology solution to give consumers the food information they want and deserve."
Asked whether the Hershey app would include GMOs, a spokesperson said, "This effort is much broader that GM ingredients."
"The intent of the platform is to provide a lot more information about products and to provide the information that consumers say is important to them," Hershey said.
"We are still building the platform, so it's too early to say exactly what will be in it, but we are a consumer-centric company, and we will listen to our consumers and provide the information that they tell us they want to know in the spirit of being transparent."
–The Hagstrom Report