Senators Still in Talks on GMOs; Conaway Stands by House Bill

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By Casey Wooten

June 7 — With less than a month before Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law goes into effect, Congress has yet to put forth a nationwide alternative, but Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he's continuing talks with the panel's leading Democrat for a solution.

Roberts told an audience at a Bloomberg Government policy luncheon June 7 that he and Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) have about three key points left to resolve before reaching a compromise on a nationwide plan for labeling products made from genetically modified organisms.

Roberts didn't identify which issues remained, but pointed to the urgency to create a nationwide labeling standard.

“This is so widespread and so important that this represents a wrecking ball to the entire food industry,” Roberts said. “We have to get it fixed. That's the bottom line, and we are running out of time.”

The legislative challenges go beyond a Senate impasse. Vermont's labeling law, which goes into effect July 1, could have a knock-on effect in other states, some of which are poised to enact their own GMO labeling standards. That could create a patchwork of laws among states, potentially creating a headache for food makers trying to comply with a kaleidoscope of new packaging regulations. Moreover, a Senate compromise to create a nationwide GMO labeling standard may get no traction in the House, where Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas)—who also spoke at the luncheon—still backs a voluntary-only GMO labeling bill (H.R. 1599) passed by that chamber in 2015.

Stymied Compromise Effort

Roberts's effort at a compromise bill (S. 746) failed on a 48-49 procedural vote in March, sending those in favor of a nationwide, voluntary system and those supporting a nationwide, mandatory system back to the negotiating table.

That effort explored a voluntary system but with a trigger to implement a mandatory system if industry did not adequately participate. The bill wasn't enough to bring over Stabenow or many of her Democratic colleagues, who largely support mandatory labeling from the start (See previous story, 03/17/16).

That leaves Roberts struggling with the vote math, trying to balance attracting more Democrats to a GMO labeling bill without losing too many in his own party.

“Many people don't bother or don't consider the fact that we have to count to 60,” Roberts said.

Roberts said a compromise bill that may attract an additional 15 or 20 Democrats could potentially lose 30 Republicans who voted for his March effort.

“So you see how contentious this bill has been, even though every one of us wants to get there, so we'll see in the next couple of days,” Roberts said.

‘Moving the Goalposts.'

Conaway remains a staunch proponent of a voluntary-only bill (H.R. 1599) that his chamber passed in July 2015.

Conaway's House bill passed with a comfortable majority, and the lawmaker isn't backing off his position in favor of a voluntary labeling standard, instead calling on Stabenow to move closer to his position and submit an alternative bill.

“We’ve got 275 votes, and that represents a very broad majority and a very wide spectrum of interests,” he said. “I don’t know whose interests she’s [trying] to defend and protect, but until she puts something down on paper, they keep moving the goalposts, and so I’m not going to negotiate with a blank sheet of paper.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com