House Agriculture Committee lawmakers want more control over deciding which government agency — the Agriculture Department or the Food and Drug Administration — would control the regulation of labels for genetically modified foods.
This leaves a much-publicized bill to create labeling standards in limbo.
The "Safe and Accurate Labeling Act," H.R. 1599, was reintroduced with bipartisan support last month, garnering cheers from agriculture commodity groups and criticism from environmental organizations pushing for mandatory disclosure of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on food packaging.
But beyond the burst of pronouncements for or against the bill, H.R. 1599 appears to have stalled. This frustrates members of the Agriculture Committee, which has some jurisdiction over the bill but less control than the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight of FDA.
"There doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm to move the bill in that committee, not as much enthusiasm as there is in the Ag Committee; that’s the problem," said Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).
The bill, introduced by Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), would pre-empt state initiatives to affix labels on GMOs by reaffirming FDA’s role in regulating food labels, allowing the agency to develop guidelines for a voluntary labeling system. The legislation would also allow USDA to certify non-GMO products, in a manner similar to its program for certified organic goods.
From "low fat" to "juice from concentrate," FDA is the authority on labeling foods for nutrition information, potential allergens, health claims and other statements on packaging.
On the other end of the food supply chain, USDA approves and regulates crops from genetically modified seeds. A GMO plant’s DNA has been altered in a laboratory to express certain traits, like the ability to withstand herbicide applications or kill off pests. GMO crops are an important part of many farmers’ production schedules; more than 90 percent of the country’s corn, soybean, sugar beet and cotton acres is planted with genetically modified seeds.
"I think [USDA] would be better suited to deal with inputs into agricultural products than FDA would be," said House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway (R-Texas). He added that there would be "risks" that FDA would not work in agriculture’s favor, but he declined to elaborate on that point.
Though mainstream scientists say there is little evidence that GMOs are harmful to health, consumer concerns over the safety of GMO foods remains high. More than 90 percent of people in a 2013 New York Times survey supported GMO labeling. More than 70 bills on the issue have been introduced across state legislatures, according to the Center for Food Safety, and Vermont successfully passed a law last year to require labeling by July 2016.
And Peterson is worried that popular opinion might influence FDA more than USDA.
"They get distracted by some of these people [who might promote] emotional things that are not scientific," he said.
Agriculture backers in the House see USDA as bringing a softer touch to labeling than FDA.
"The idea, I think, is not to be punitive but to [have an] educative orientation," said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who gave up his high-ranking spot on the Agriculture Committee earlier this year to join Energy and Commerce. "So far, it seems like FDA has been a little more punitive."
"USDA would be better, but if it’s FDA, so be it," he added.
The tussle between committees is not the only thing stalling H.R. 1599. While Senate agriculture supporters like Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) say they support a law to pre-empt state labeling initiatives, no one has come forward with a bill.
"It’s just now starting to pick up steam," Grassley said last week, after meeting with the Iowa Biotechnology Association.
In a statement, Pompeo’s spokeswoman said the congressman expects to get the House bill passed by this summer, without needing to cede to the Agriculture Committee.
Pompeo "looks forward to the Agriculture Committee marking-up this section of the bill," wrote spokeswoman Heather Denker. "However, given the importance of the core issue — federal pre-emption of food labeling — to the entire food supply chain, the Congressman will work aggressively to see that provision signed into law."
Mike Gruber, senior vice president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said the FDA component — and therefore, Energy and Commerce’s involvement — is critical for the most important part of the bill: preventing state efforts from going into effect.
"We need to make sure there is expressed pre-emption at FDA so that we don’t have this patchwork across the United States," he said. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is a key backer of the bill and has sued the Vermont government for passing its labeling law.
Meanwhile, the difficulty in passing H.R. 1599 so far is apparent to many, especially those in favor of labeling GMOs.
"There’s a steep hill to climb for Mr. Pompeo and his bill," said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety.