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Pompeo: Industry's GMO Labeling Champion

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Politics and Democracy page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

The food industry has finally found its champion in Congress to help beat back state attempts at mandatory GMO labeling.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) is aiming to introduce a labeling bill backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and dozens of other food groups sometime in the next two weeks, before the House breaks for its Easter recess, POLITICO has learned.

The legislation would create a federal voluntary labeling system for foods that are not genetically modified — which the bill refers to as “bioengineered” — and increase FDA’s regulatory oversight of GMOs, according to a draft version of the measure obtained by POLITICO. The effort aims to create a friendlier, preemptive set of federal rules to quell public concerns over GMOs and stem the roughly 20 pending state bills and ballot initiatives that will be costly for the industry to fight.

The question now: Will the industry’s federal solution go anywhere?

Pompeo’s office and the coalition are working with the Energy and Commerce Committee, of which Pompeo is a member, to finalize the bill. They’re seeking out co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle, but it doesn’t appear that lawmakers are jumping to sign on.

Elected to the House in 2010 from the ag-centric 4th District of Kansas, the second-term congressman — an Army veteran and former military contractor — also serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where he is known for being hawkish on foreign policy. Pompeo has experienced little success in his short time on the Hill when it comes to sponsoring legislation. He’s sponsored at least 25 bills since 2011, none of which have achieved passage.

Pompeo’s office did not return a request for comment by press time.

For months, food policy insiders have speculated that the more senior Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) might sponsor a food industry-friendly GMO labeling bill, and sources say his office has been helping to craft the bill’s language. But Upton, chairman of Energy and Commerce, has yet to publicly commit to the bill.

In fact, sources say the coalition has yet to sign on any lawmakers other than Pompeo.

“This continues to be an important issue for the committee and we will carefully review any proposal that is presented,” is all a spokeswoman for the Energy and Commerce Committee would say.

GMA has been talking to lawmakers about the issue since at least last fall and in February joined forces with 33 other food and agriculture groups, forming the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, to help push the legislation. The coalition includes the American Bakers Association, American Beverage Association, American Frozen Food Institute, National Corn Growers Association and the Biotechnology Industry Association, to name a few, but is fully funded by GMA, sources said.

“We continue to work with a broad group of members of Congress,” said Claire Parker, a spokeswoman for the coalition. “We’re encouraged with the progress we’re making on legislation to protect consumers and avoid a costly and confusing 50-state patchwork of labeling regimes.”

Coalition leaders have met with all the Republicans on the committee as well as several Democrats, including dean of the House Rep. John Dingell of Michigan and red-state Democrats Jim Matheson of Utah, John Barrow of Georgia and Bruce Braley of Iowa, sources said.

There is not yet a companion bill in the Senate, a fact that makes some in the coalition concerned about whether the effort will attract the broad-based support needed to become law — or even dissuade state action.

On top of questions about support in Congress, there is trepidation about the fact that the Food Marketing Institute, which represents large chains like Kroger and Walmart, and the National Grocers Association, which represents independently owned grocery chains, are not part of the coalition.

Retailers are wary of the GMO-labeling issue, which has grown increasingly contentious in recent years, especially as some companies that have funded anti-labeling efforts at the state level have been targeted by activists with boycotts.

“While we strongly agree that we need a federal solution, driven by FDA and USDA, to avoid a confusing 50-state system, FMI hasn’t joined the coalition at this point because there are some provisions in the bill that we believe could prolong and expand the discussion,” said FMI spokeswoman Heather Garlich. “We believe the draft legislation, as we understand it, is well-intentioned and FMI supports that intention, but in order to be part of the coalition, we would need to advocate for all the provisions that are included in the draft legislation in a comprehensive format.”

GMA hosted what one source described as an “all-hands-on-deck cattle call” coalition meeting at its headquarters in Washington on March 20 to unveil the current legislative language.

The 21-page draft bill Pompeo is ready to sponsor would prohibit states from requiring GMO labeling, something the food industry says threatens to create a patchwork of different regulations across the country.

It would require pre-market notification of FDA for new GMO food products. FDA would have 210 days from the date it receives a petition to review the submission. If a safety or allergen issue is raised, FDA could require labeling.

However, genetically engineered enzymes used in food processing and products developed specifically for use as animal feed are exempt from the notification requirement.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The draft bill mirrors talking points floated to lawmakers by GMA late last year, as first reported by POLITICO.

The bill would also create standards for companies who want to label their products as GMO free, though such labeling “may not suggest either expressly or by implication that foods developed without the use of bioengineering are safer than foods produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism.” Such labeling could be made on meat and animal products produced from livestock fed or treated with GMOs, or foods produced with a GMO enzyme.

FDA would have 24 months to promulgate regulations under the bill, though the provisions of the legislation would take effect 30 days after the yet-to-be-determined date of enactment “irrespective of whether regulations or guidance have been finalized or issued.”

GMO-free label claims under the bill could be made before the rules are finalized.

The bill further calls for FDA to, within two years of enactment, issue regulations defining the term “natural” on food labeling — a gray area that the food industry would very much like to see FDA clear up. Dozens of food companies are battling “all natural” labeling lawsuits, which claim using the term is misleading to consumers when the products contain genetically engineered ingredients, and FDA has said it will not take up the issue.

After the legislation is introduced, the GMA-led effort, being run by boutique PR firm Weber Merritt, will provide literature and grassroots messaging to help groups engage their member companies and build support. Sources tell POLITICO the goal is to hold a hearing on the bill either in the summer or fall.

Greg Jaffe, director of the project on biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that is more accepting of GMOs than others, said he thinks the measure is “a step in the right direction,” but ultimately falls short of the reforms he believes might improve consumer confidence.

“This bill does not have a mandatory pre-market approval process. So while it does acknowledge the need for FDA to get more involved in the oversight of genetically engineered crops to ensure their safety and improve consumer confidence, it really is a baby step,” said Jaffe.

“It gives FDA very limited authority,” he said. “It acknowledges, but doesn’t really address, the problem in a comprehensive way.”
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