WASHINGTON – The U.S. House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to ban state laws that force food makers to place labels on products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Passage of the bill is a victory for the food and chemical industries, including many of Minnesota’s major food companies, which had lobbied for the ban. GMO labeling opponents had lost a court battle to stop state labeling laws before turning to Congress.
Opponents of GMO labeling outspent supporters $30 million to $10 million in an aggressive lobbying effort, according to the open records group MapLight. The vote was 275 to 150 with six of Minnesota’s eight representatives voting against labeling requirements.
The industry complained that individual state standards would be costly and confusing. But many in the food business also said any kind of mandatory GMO labeling requirement — even a single federal standard — was unfair, because it suggested that GMOs are not as safe or healthy as conventional food.
Supporters of labeling decried the bill’s passage as a blow to consumer choice and a usurpation of states’ rights.
“This House was bought and paid for by corporate interests, so it’s no surprise that it passed a bill to block states and the [Food and Drug Administration] from giving consumers basic information about their food,” said Scott Faber of the group Just Label It.
Three states — Vermont, Connecticut and Maine — have passed mandatory GMO labeling laws. GMO labeling initiatives are being considered in several other states, including Minnesota.
Vermont’s law, which has survived legal challenges by the food industry, is set to take effect in 2016. But if the bill passed Thursday by the House passes the Senate and is signed into law, that labeling requirement will be voided.
Land O’Lakes CEO Chris Policinski, who testified against GMO labeling in a March House agriculture committee hearing, said Thursday that a voluntary non-GMO labeling regime envisioned by the House-passed bill is sufficient to inform and protect consumers.
“It provides the opportunity for food manufacturers to give information to consumers about where their food comes from through an orderly, federal labeling standard, similar to the USDA certified organic labeling program,” he said in a statement.
Inver Grove Heights-based CHS Inc. welcomed the House decision.
“CHS applauds the House of Representatives for passing the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” said the company, which paid lobbyists to push the bill’s passage. “As the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative, we strongly support the need for a voluntary, national non-GMO labeling standard.”
General Mills and Cargill, which also lobbied on the bill, expressed their approval, with General Mills calling for quick Senate passage.
Cargill views GMO labeling “through the lens of food security and the implications for food costs and supply disruptions that a patchwork of state requirements would create,” the company said in a statement.
Democratic Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota supported the House bill because “hundreds of scientific, peer reviewed studies have found [genetically engineered] foods are just as safe and nutritious as non-[genetically engineered] foods.”
The House-passed bill “works,” according to Walz, because products labeled non-genetically modified “will be certified by the USDA.”
Republican Rep. Tom Emmer said “Minnesota farmers already deal with heavy compliance regulations to ensure that genetically engineered crops are safe to eat.”
Minnesota Democrats Collin Peterson and Betty McCollum also voted for the bill, as did Republicans John Kline and Erik Paulsen.
Only two of the state’s eight House members — Democrats Keith Ellison and Rick Nolan — opposed the measure.
“The issue isn’t whether GMO foods are healthy or safe,” Nolan said in a statement. “It’s about the right to know what’s in the food we buy for ourselves and our families. This is a serious problem begging for a solution. As yet, we haven’t seen a good one.”
Faber, of Just Label It, alluded to a recent poll that found nine in 10 Americans support GMO labeling.
Peterson believes the new bill answers those concerns.
“The bill changes the current review process to ensure that every new genetically engineered plant destined to enter the market goes through an FDA safety review,” Peterson said in a statement after the vote. “The bill also sets a national, uniform standard to define genetically engineered products.”
Opponents expressed hope that the bill would not pass the Senate.
Support in the upper chamber is not as strong for a GMO labeling ban. But the ban could be appended to other must-pass legislation.