A Fight is Growing Over Food Labels

Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, is working on a bill but says he has to figure out how to write it to attract a Democratic cosponsor. Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, is working on a bill but says he has to figure out how to write it to attract a Democratic cosponsor. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

 Food labeling suddenly has become the summer rage in Congress.

On Thursday, the House passed a bill that would stop states from labeling foods with genetically modified organisms and would establish a voluntary "non-GMO" label at the federal level. The same day, senators introduced one bill that would repeal country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork, and chicken, and another that would repeal most mandatory meat labeling and establish a federal voluntary label for the same products.

The labeling bills reflect several factors: consumers' increased interest in what they eat, competition within the food industry—and the difficulties of government at all levels in making the labels work.

First, the issue of genetic modification or, the term scientists prefer, genetic engineering. Ever since scientists figured out how to take a gene from one species and engineer it into another to introduce a trait such as resistance to an herbicide, the idea has scared some people. But the Food and Drug Administration has said that foods made from genetically modified corn, canola, soybeans, and cotton are not materially different from the non-GMO products and therefore don't require labels.

This view hasn't satisfied some consumer advocates or owners of organic-food businesses who want mandatory labeling of all products containing genetically modified ingredients. Ballot initiatives to require labeling failed in California and other states, but Vermont passed a mandatory GMO-labeling law that is scheduled to be enforced in July 2016. Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that will go into effect if neighboring states pass the same law.

Food companies' private studies apparently show that at least some consumers would reject food with a label that it "contains genetically modified ingredients." As one lobbyist put it, "We want to label everything we can 'non-GMO' and not label the products with GMOs."

Big food—as critics call the conventional food industry—spent millions of dollars to fight each initiative, winning most of them. It tried to stop the Vermont law in the courts, but has failed so far. The prospect that the Vermont law might go into effect led the industry to convince Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, to introduce a bill that would establish a program at the Agriculture Department to allow companies to apply for a "non-GMO" label on foods that contain no genetically modified ingredients. The bill would stop states from establishing mandatory GMO-labeling programs on the grounds that one already exists at the federal level.

The Pompeo bill passed the House by a vote of 275-150, with 45 Democrats joining 230 Republicans in favor of it.

With that kind of margin, you'd think the Senate would follow the House. But so far the Senate doesn't even have a GMO bill to consider. Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, is working on a bill but says he has to figure out how to write it to attract a Democratic cosponsor and the 60 votes that would be needed to end debate.

Now, for the issue of country-of-origin meat labeling: The United States has had a country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law for certain products since 2002, although it has only been enforced in recent years. The origin of the issue is because of an odd phenomenon: Cattle and pigs are raised in Canada and Mexico, but slaughtered in the United States. The law came into existence in part because of consumer pressure but also because some beef and pork producers, particularly in the Dakotas, Montana, Minnesota, and Wyoming, believed that slaughterhouses took advantage of the availability of Canadian and Mexican cattle and pigs whenever U.S. animal prices got high.

The Canadian and Mexican governments reacted to the law by taking a case to the World Trade Organization that the U.S. law discriminated against Canadian and Mexican cattle and hog producers because U.S. slaughterhouses said they had to segregate the foreign animals from the American animals to comply with the labeling law, and either bought smaller numbers of Canadian and Mexican animals or refused to buy them at all. The WTO sided with Canada and Mexico, and the United States now is under pressure to comply with the WTO complaint or face punitive tariffs on a range of products.

The House has voted to repeal COOL, not only for the beef and pork that were the subject of the WTO case, but also for chicken and ground meat. But once again, the road is tougher in the Senate. The very same Hoeven who is working on the GMO-labeling bill is the one who last Wednesday introduced, with Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member and Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, a bill to follow the House on repeal and establish a voluntary meat-labeling program at USDA.

"That's just reasonable because that's what Canada does," Hoeven said, referring to a Canadian voluntary "Product of Canada" label.

But the Canadian government maintains that even a voluntary U.S. government label would cause packers to continue to segregate and discriminate. The same day that Hoeven introduced his bill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas introduced a bill calling only for repeal on the grounds that Canada and Mexico still would seek retaliation.

If Hoeven can get both restrictions on GMO labeling and voluntary country-of-origin meat labeling into law, he will be a hero in some quarters and a go-to strategist.

But with the food industry split, passage of these bills will be difficult, and the issue of labeling won't go away.

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