Labeling food in interstate commerce might come up enough in U.S. law and regulations for the federal government to claim it’s already pre-empted the subject from the states. However, with a July 1 deadline for compliance with a Vermont law requiring the labeling of food with any ingredients that are genetically modified, Congress now appears to want to be sure the states butt out. USCapitolBuildingMainLast year, a lopsided bipartisan majority in the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate food Labeling Act by a vote of 275 to 150. It created a federal standard for voluntary labeling of food with GMO ingredients. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-KS, who led the House super-majority,  said there is “precisely zero” risk to health and safety from foods produced with biotechnology and consumers should not have to pay for a patchwork of state labeling mandates “based on the  wishes of a handful of activists.” “Precisely zero pieces of credible evidence have been presented that foods produced with biotechnology pose any risk to our health and safety,” Pompeo said. “We should not raise prices on consumers based on the wishes of a handful of activists.” There it stood for more than six months, until this week when a bipartisan majority of the Senate Agriculture Committee adopted its own version of a bill to stop states from imposing their own labeling schemes. The Senate action was led by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, who was successful in getting his Biotechnology Labeling Solutions bill reported out of committee on a 14-6 vote. Roberts said it was not a safety or health issues, but a market issue that required the Senate’s action. Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the Senate has “a responsibility to ensure that the national market can work for everyone, including farmers, manufacturers , retailers and consumers.” He said the alternative is to allow a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws to play out. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, supported the Roberts bill. She noted states’ GMO label laws are already patchy, with dairy products either specifically included or excluded from requirements depending on how important the industry is to a given state. The liberal Minnesota Democrat said she expects the Roberts bill will be amended on the floor of the Senate, and she is open to an amendment by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-IN, to include a national, voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard. The organic industry has long wanted to force foods with genetically modified organisms or GMOs to carry disclosures on the labels. Their attempts have been made on a state-by-state basis. Except for Vermont, however, they’ve had little success with ballot measures or state legislation. State lawmakers are picking around the edges. By the end of the 2015 legislative season, the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reported 101 bills were introduced in state houses around the country that in some way addressed genetically-modified organisms. Of the 15 adopted, nine urged that science-based data be used in all future GMO regulation and four related to labeling standards. NCSL said 57 bills were carried over and might be pending in 2016. Continuing with the patchwork approach will be costly, according to Roberts. He cited a study that showed the cost to consumers would run as much as $82 billion annually or approximately $1,050 for each American family. “Now is not the time for Congress to make food more expensive for anyone—not the consumer, nor the producer,” Roberts said. Roberts said before moving the bill out of his committee that it had the support of 652 food and agricultural organizations, representing one of the largest coalitions ever to support a single congressional act. Opponents to the Roberts bill say state disclosure requirements provide transparency and should not be shutdown. They support an alternative bill offered by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR.  His Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act is being co-sponsored by Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, Montana’s Jon Tester, and California’s Dianne Feinstein. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)