USDA gets bigger role in GMO preemption bill

The sponsors of a House bill to prevent states from requiring special labels on GMO foods are considering a new version that would put the USDA in charge of certifying if foods are made from genetically modified organisms or not. The bill, filed by Mike Pompeo of Kansas and GK Butterfield of North Carolina, would keep labeling voluntary at the federal level.

A “discussion draft” for a new version of the bill includes non-disparagement clauses that would bar labels from claiming a food is better or safer because it is non-GMO or made with GMOs. The House Energy and Commerce Committee released a copy of the draft as part of announcing a subcommittee hearing on “a national framework for the review and labeling of biotechnology in food” on Thursday.

Under the draft, the FDA and the USDA would more closely coordinate review and approval of GMO foods. It would create at the USDA a certification program for genetically engineered foods to operate through certifying agents who check the type of seeds used, precautions to segregate crops during growth, harvest and processing. The approach is similar to the agriculture department’s organic certification process.

House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway said he was “pleased with the progress made … to refine and improve” the preemption bill. “Creating a policy of national uniformity regarding marketing claims for agricultural production technologies is a priority for the Agriculture Committee,” said Conaway, who opposes state GMO labeling laws.

The Pompeo-Butterfield bill, HR 1599, backed by the food industry, has five dozen House sponsors. There is no companion Senate bill. There are House and Senate bills to require labeling of GMO food and specifically for GMO salmon. A food industry group, Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, says the preemption bill “will prevent food labels from being used to advance the agenda of special interest groups.”

Vermont enacted the first GMO labeling law in the nation a year ago. It will become effective on July 1, 2016.

The 21-page discussion draft to update Pompeo’s GMO bill is available here.