“NO” on Mandatory GMO Labeling Act (S. 764)

This week, the House is scheduled to vote on S. 764, a Senate-passed bill authored by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) 52% and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) 5% that would create a new federal labeling requirement for GMO products.

The new GMO labeling requirements passed by the Senate stand in stark contrast to the approach advocated by the House. In their “A Better Way” blueprint — a product of Speaker Ryan’s task force on the economy and regulations — House Republicans embraced voluntary labeling standards:

“Rep. Pompeo sponsored H.R. 1599, The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives [on] July 24th. This legislation will create a consumer-friendly, science-based, uniform food labeling framework for products using genetically engineered ingredients. By ensuring that food labeling is the sole purview of the federal government, the bill guarantees that state labeling mandates do not mislead consumers. Additionally, the bill will prevent the costly price hikes associated with a patchwork of state labeling laws.”

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act passed with 275 votes (vote results here), including many conservatives. As Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway said last year, “the keys to success in any marketing venture are voluntary participation, robust, transparent and meaningful standards, and comprehensive enforcement to ensure compliance” and H.R. 1599 “hits all of these marks.” Conaway also noted the bill would “address the very real threat to interstate commerce posed by the impending implementation of a State law in Vermont.”

By contrast, the Roberts-Stabenow bill would preempt the Vermont law — which will not be enforced until 2017 — by requiring a nationwide requirement that information about genetic engineering be conveyed. While it would allow for alternative disclosure methods, such as bar codes and websites, S. 764 still takes one bad law in one state and expands its premises to all 50 states. While it may make it easier for companies doing business in Vermont, this legislation ignores all the food manufacturers that do not do business in Vermont. Those companies will now have to comply with a massive new federal regulatory regime that they otherwise would not have to address. The previous House-passed bill, H.R. 1599, would create no such burden.

While the food industry has legitimate claims against the burdens of the Vermont law, S. 764 is a misguided overreach by the federal government. If the burden of Vermont’s food labeling law is so bad, the food industry could simply stop selling its food in Vermont, thereby forcing them to face predictable consequences of their own bad law. There is also not yet an overly burdensome “patchwork” of state laws that would even begin to justify federal preemption in this manner. As the Heritage Foundation’s Daren Bakst explains:

“The food industry has a legitimate concern regarding labeling costs. However, these costs pale in comparison to the much bigger problems with mandatory labeling in general; problems that are made far worse by the federal government ensuring that labeling requirements exist in all states and providing legitimacy to mandatory labeling.”

Perhaps worst of all, this bill puts federal legitimacy behind a dangerous movement intent on American agriculture. As the “Better Way” task force on the economy correctly noted:

“a vocal minority of citizens are creating doubt in the minds of many consumers and policymakers through misinformation about the safety of genetically engineered inputs. This misinformation is influencing policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels and could threaten our farmers’ ability to feed an ever-growing population and increase the cost of food for consumers.”

And, as Heritage’s Bakst continues:

“Genetic engineering is widely used in agriculture. Genetically engineered crops include alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. About half of U.S. cropland (169 million acres) was used to grow genetically engineered corn, cotton, and soybeans in 2013. Policymakers should be aware of the harm that labeling would create for farmers and states that grow a significant amount of genetically engineered crops, as well as for consumers.”

The House should not rubber stamp the Senate bill. It could revert to its previous position as put forward in H.R. 1599, or it could amend the Senate bill to allow Vermont to impose its restrictive labeling mandate, but prohibit the state from regulating out-of-state food manufacturers engaged in interstate commerce (in-state businesses, such as retailers, could still inform consumers about food products coming from outside the state).  Whatever Congress chooses to do, instituting a new, sweeping, federal mandate that isn’t based on proven science shouldn’t even be an option.

Heritage Action opposes S. 764 and absent significant changes, including the removal of the federal mandate, will include it as a key vote on our legislative scorecard.