U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) may want to send some thank-you letters out to state legislative leaders who shut down efforts to get in his way this year. Pompeo is the GOP’s point man in Congress on federal policy to preempt the states from writing their own laws requiring the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
This legislative season appears to be ending without another state willing to join Vermont in requiring that GMO food be labeled. State legislatures are adjourned in Hawaii, Alaska, the entire Western region except for the three Pacific Coast states, the Midwest, the South except for the Carolinas, and the Border States.
The North and Northeast states bordering Canada also remain in session, along with Illinois, which is holding a special special session looking to close a $3-billion budget gap by July 1.
The fact that GMO-labeling bills were introduced but mostly failed to go anywhere gives Congress more time to work on the issue before the food industry is confronted with a maze of state, territorial, and federal labeling rules.
Vermont’s law requiring labels on GMO foods passed last year, but it does not take effect until July 2016. Federal courts are allowing it to go forward, but a few issues remain unresolved.
Maine and Connecticut also passed GMO-labeling laws, but those are contingent upon bordering states taking the same approach before they would trigger enforcement.
And, according to the Center for Food Safety, North Dakota and Michigan have adopted state laws opposing the labeling of GMO foods.
Where the 2015 legislative season is not entirely over, the attention of lawmakers is pretty much down to adopting budgets for the new fiscal year. Illinois and Massachusetts are two such examples, and both had GMO-labeling bills on their dockets.
In Illinois, the Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act was allowed to die in the Senate Environment and Conservation Committee on May 31 for lack of a third-reading vote. Labeling GMO food would have been required in the Land of Lincoln beginning on Jan. 1, 2017, had the bill passed and been signed into law.
Massachusetts, which just adopted a temporary budget for the first two weeks of July to cover if the state doesn’t have a permanent fiscal plan in place, has seen no formal legislative action on its proposed GE food labeling law since it was assigned to committees in January.
Its potential demise if lawmakers do get their budget work done and adjourn is puzzling because advocates claim to have endorsements for the proposed measure from 154 of 200 legislators, including 125 of the 160 representatives and 29 of the 40 senators.
Most state GMO-labeling bills did not get far in 2015. Hawaii was an exception. Its Food Labeling Law was assigned to four Senate committees and actually won recommendations from two (Agriculture and Health), where it generated almost 600 pages of comments from government agencies and the public.
However, the bill was finally opposed by the Hawaii Departments of Health and Agriculture and died in the Commerce and Ways and Means committees. The health department said it would have to hire “numerous experts in the field of biotechnology and genetics as well as multi-million analytical equipment currently not available at DOH. Additional enforcement staff would also be required.”
“The department does not object in principle to a labeling policy to enhance public awareness of the absence or presence of genetically engineered food or food ingredients in Hawaii markets,” Dr. Virginia Pressler, state health director, said in prepared testimony last Feb. 19. “However, the department is not in a position to enforce such legislation because practical and legally defensible analytical methods to detect any and all genetic modification do not exist.”
She also noted that, “Currently, there is no conclusive scientific evidence of negative health effects associated with consumption of genetically engineered food or food products as determine by the U.S. Food and Drug Association.” Instead, Pressler said the department “would like to focus its limited resources in areas such as controlling the incidence of foodborne illness risk factors by inspecting food establishments at the appropriate frequency.”
After her testimony, support for GMO labeling receded in the Hawaii Legislature.
In other states, GMO-labeling laws went down quicker. State Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) introduced a couple of bills regulating genetically engineered food in the GOP-controlled Indiana Senate and did not get further than a committee assignment. Six Democrats in the Arizona House introduced a GMO-labeling bill only to see it parked in the Rules Committee for the entire session.
A couple of bills to free Connecticut’s GMO policy from its current status of being contingent on surrounding states also went nowhere after being assigned to the Joint Committee on Environment. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees were the killing grounds for two proposed GMO-labeling laws in Florida.
While few state lawmakers do much reporting back to their constituents when their bills fail, Florida Democratic State Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda is an exception. The Tallahassee attorney and college professor sponsored the Florida GMO bill in the House as one of her “15 for 2015,” about which she mostly had to report, “This bill was not heard in any committees.”
A GMO-labeling bill in Iowa also died quickly. Alaska’s got no further than an assignment to the House Natural Resources Committee. Anchorage Democrat Geran Tarr was the sponsor. She said the measure was needed to give Alaskans their right to know and to save the Chinook salmon.
All in all, the 2015 legislative season provided little evidence that the states are rushing to jump ahead of Uncle Sam when it comes to GMO-labeling legislation. A number of bills that were advanced had start dates after July 1, 2016, showing some awareness that even the sponsors may think it’s a wise move to let Vermont go first.
The bottom line is that for the rest of this year, most attention on the issue will be focused back in the nation’s capital on Pompeo’s H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. That bill would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set standards for companies that want to label food products as containing or not containing GMOs and would preempt state action on the issue.© Food Safety News