WASHINGTON – The House Agriculture Committee pushed a ban on mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods a step closer to law Tuesday.

With Minnesota Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz supporting and Rick Nolan opposing, the committee sent to the House floor a bill to prohibit states from forcing food companies to note the presence of genetically modified organisms — GMOs — in their products.

The bill represents a major victory for the food and chemical industries, which fought and failed in court to stop mandatory GMO labeling. Individually and through trade associations, big Minnesota food companies such as Land O'Lakes, Cargill, Hormel and General Mills supported the bill that the agriculture committee approved.

If passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by the president, the bill will do what the courts have refused to do: Stop Vermont from implementing a mandatory GMO labeling law next year. Maine and Connecticut also have passed GMO labeling laws that would be thwarted.

The Republican-run House is expected to easily pass the labeling bill. Prospects in the GOP-run Senate remain uncertain because of differences in how debate is conducted and mushy Democratic support.

Peterson, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, helped smooth the way for passage of the bill, saying it was a practical way to keep consumers informed because a state-by-state solution was unmanageable.

If approved, the law would replace individual state food labeling laws with a single, voluntary nationwide labeling program.

The bill, called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, would make food producers go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before offering their GMO products commercially. But the bill also aims to let food makers tout their products as GMO-free instead of making those who use GMOs reveal their presence. It does so through a program similar to the organic certification program now run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Consumers increasingly want to know more about where their food comes from and how it is produced," Peterson told his colleagues before the vote. "I think [the bill] satisfies that demand while also recognizing what we know about the safety of the foods that our farmers produce."

His position is in line with testimony offered to the committee in March by Land O'Lakes CEO Chris Policinski.

Patchwork mandates

"A GMO labeling mandate will stigmatize GMO products, driving down demand for GMO crops," Policinski testified.

"Stigmatizing safe, proven biotechnology through patchwork state labeling mandates or even mandatory federal labeling jeopardizes innovation and threatens future development and use of technology in agriculture," ­Policinski added. "That's dangerous for everyone."

Not according to some members of the committee who argued that the new labeling bill did more to confuse the issue of GMO safety than to clarify it.

Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., pointed out that recent research shows one of the pesticides commonly used in growing GMO crops may contain cancer-causing agents. McGovern noted that 64 other countries have mandatory GMO labeling laws "and the sky hasn't fallen in."

"This is about letting Americans know if their food contains GMOs," he said. "Why not give the American people what they want?"

In an interview after the vote, Walz said McGovern brought up valid points that he hoped will be debated on the House floor.

Walz, from Minnesota's First District, said some of his constituents have expressed concerns about GMOs in food. But the producers of GMO crops and foods in his district believe their products are safe. Walz said the "science" of food technology "may not support" the claims by some that GMOs are unhealthy.

In a statement to the Star Tribune, Nolan, from Minnesota's Eighth District, said, "The issue isn't whether GMO foods are healthy or safe; it's about the right to know what's in the food you buy for your family."

Asked by the Star Tribune to react to the committee's action, Cargill and Land O'Lakes issued statements of support.

"A state-by-state patchwork of [GMO] labeling requirements would be confusing to consumers, create supply disruptions, and increase food prices," Cargill said. "Cargill also supports the creation of a voluntary USDA-administrated certification and labeling program for non-GMO food products."

Land O'Lakes called the labeling bill "important" because "all types of agriculture are needed to meet the soaring demand for food, including proven, safe biotechnologies such as GM crops."

Trade groups representing the food industry celebrated the committee vote and urged the whole House to act before its annual August recess.

"It is imperative that the House and Senate move quickly to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act," said Pamela Bailey, CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose members include General Mills, Hormel, Land O'Lakes and Cargill. "It will put a science-based framework in place that provides consumers across the country with uniform food labeling standards."

Kept in the dark

But the consumer and environmental groups Just Label It and the Center for Food Safety and members of Congress from Vermont and Maine reacted angrily to what they consider an attempt to keep people in the dark about what they're eating.

If enacted, the new law would let some GMO products be called "natural," they said. And it will control information in ways that serve big businesses rather than people.

"There is an enormous self-interest on the part of the chemical and food industries," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

Welch called the new law "bizarre" in that industry groups insist GMOs are safe, but don't want to reveal their presence.

Welch likened that to telling consumers, "Shut up. We'll let you know what we want you to know."

Jim Spencer • 1-202-383-6123