By Casey Wooten
May 6 — As the Senate geared up earlier this year to debate legislation establishing a nationwide, voluntary system for labeling foods made with genetically modified organisms, so did K Street.
But for all the lobbyists, public campaigns and press releases, Congress couldn't agree on a national labeling standard. The status quo prevailed, and Vermont, population 626,000, whose mandatory GMO labeling law is set to go into effect July 1, could start a domino effect of other states crafting their own labeling rules.
“We had been telling lawmakers that we needed this done by the first of the year, and here we are in May with about 56 days before enactment,” Mike Gruber, senior vice president for federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food producers and retailers such as Publix Super Markets Inc. and General Mills Inc.
According to lobbying disclosures provided by the Senate Office of Public Records, the number of groups filing reports citing “GMO labeling” as an issue of focus spiked 31 percent between the fourth quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016, increasing from 49 companies, trade groups and advocacy organizations to 64.
That jump continues an upward trend over the past year. In the first quarter of 2015, only 24 groups filed lobbying reports citing “GMO labeling” as an issue.
The spike signifies an increasing sense of urgency as the Vermont law looms, particularly for advocates of a voluntary system. It also coincides with legislation (S. 2609) introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) that would preempt the Vermont law and create a national, voluntary labeling standard.
Roberts's committee approved that bill March 1. After Democratic opposition, however, Roberts offered a compromise in the form of a substitute amendment to an unrelated bill, S. 764, which would establish a mandatory labeling system if industry did not adequately participate in the voluntary program. That bill failed a procedural vote on the Senate floor (See previous story, 03/17/16).
Now, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Agriculture Committee, says there is little chance Congress will finish a GMO labeling bill by the July deadline.
But despite Grassley's prediction, groups working on the issue say lawmakers will get a bill done before the Vermont deadline. As July 1 approaches, public pressure will mount and force a compromise, they say.
“As we get closer to July 1, the reality and chaos in the marketplace looms, and I think it's going to drive people to the table to get a deal,” said Randy Russell, president and CEO of The Russell Group, a lobbying firm that represents food and agriculture clients, among others.
The Russell Group manages the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, an advocacy group that promotes a nationwide, voluntary labeling system and whose members include crop trade groups, state farm bureaus and other organizations.
Gruber says that compromise negotiations between Roberts and Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) continue.
Stabenow recently sent legislative language to Roberts, but the chairman gave no indication that the effort would lead to a deal (See previous story, 04/14/16).
Gruber—whose group reported $1.6 million in lobbying expenditures for the first part of 2016, the highest in the food processing and sales category—said he remained hopeful that Congress would beat Grassley's prediction, however.
“It should not be that complicated to get something resolved,” he said. “We all need to take a step back and remember that there is a food supply system that needs to be preserved.”
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