TOPEKA — Legislation blocking states and municipalities from requiring genetically modified food be labeled as such is languishing in the U.S. Senate.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, H.R. 1599, passed the House by a vote of 275-150 on July 23.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of south-central Kansas, said he has not been able to find a Democrat to co-sponsor a Senate version of the bill. The bill would require the vote of at least a half-dozen Democratic senators to pass.
“We have our work before us,” Pompeo said. “We have argumentation to make, we have logic to try to apply to convince 65 or 70 members of the Senate this is a piece of legislation that makes sense and we’re not there yet.”
“I spoke to Senator Roberts again. He’s trying to find a place for them to begin to move this forward,” Pompeo added.
Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said his committee will begin by holding a hearing on GMO food.
“We’re going to have a biotech hearing right off the bat,” Roberts said Thursday. “We don’t call it GMO, we call it biotech for a purpose. We are trying to prove to the American people that their food is safe and we have everybody from the FDA to the USDA to EPA testifying.”
Only after a hearing on the safety of GMO food will the agriculture committee consider a Senate version of Pompeo’s bill, Roberts said.
“We want to set the predicate that our food is safe, then move to the GMO issue in Vermont,” the Republican senator said.
Three states — Vermont, Connecticut and Maine — have passed statutes requiring GMO labels. Vermont’s is scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2016. Pompeo and Roberts argue that disparities between states are problematic and should be ironed out by the federal government.
“Vermont is just hanging out there and we want to bring them back in the union so we don’t have a hodgepodge of requirements for our food supply based on questionable science,” Roberts said.
Opponents of genetically modified food, such as organic farmers, argue its health effects have not been properly studied and that most Americans are in favor of GMO labeling. They refer to Pompeo’s bill as the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act, or DARK Act.
“The issue with this legislation is not whether GMOs are safe,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said during debate on the House floor in July. “The issue is whether consumers have a right to know what’s in the food they are feeding their families.”
“The message to consumers in this bill is very clear: It’s none of your business,” Welch added.
Pompeo and Roberts argue that labeling discrepancies among states place a financial burden on manufacturers, which they then pass on to consumers in the form of higher food prices. Opponents of the legislation have disputed that claim.
“We want to ensure there aren’t 500 or a thousand different sets of rules for the entire food supply change, which includes Kansas agriculture,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo’s bill has attracted heated rhetoric on both sides and opposition to it has drawn a celebrity following. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on Capitol Hill in August to state her opposition to Pompeo’s bill.
“I’m here as a mother, an American mother, that honestly believes I have the right to know what’s in the food I feed my family,” Paltrow said.
Asked about the celebrity opposition to his bill, Pompeo said he has been surprised by its intensity.
“I was very much aware that there were deeply held feelings from activists, frankly on both sides of the issue,” Pompeo said. “If you asked me if it would achieve the level of acrimony in the volume that we have, including Miss Paltrow weighing in, I would have told you, ‘Huh, that would surprise me.’”