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Two Kansas Republicans Sponsor GMO Label Bills

Campbell Soup Co.

The latest showdown in the battle about labeling food that has genetically-modified ingredients is set for next week when U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts plans to force a vote on a draft bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Capitol Hill, though, isn’t the only venue for GMO-labeling fights. Many rightly say that the GMO political geography is more accurately to the northeast, in Vermont, where the first state GMO labeling law is set to go into effect on July 1. (Two other states, Maine and Connecticut, have passed mandatory labeling laws but they are pending until similar laws are passed in neighboring states.)

GMO-labeling foes are working feverishly to stop those state efforts. Roberts’ bill, originally set for Thursday, Feb. 25, but postponed by Roberts until the next week, would preempt any state from passing mandatory labeling laws for genetically-engineered food in favor of creating a voluntary labeling framework. The U.S. House approved a similar bill last July.

Moving over to the Midwest, it’s significant that the two congressmen sponsoring both the House and Senate versions of this legislation – Roberts and Rep. Mike Pompeo -- are Kansas Republicans.

So taking a look at this moving geographical target of an issue, here are five things (and places) to know about Thursday’s action.

Washington, D.C.  – Roberts’ bill is not a done deal. As the Food & Environment Reporting Network’s Chuck Abbott reported, there’s “wiggle room” in the proposal and Roberts is trying to negotiate as the Thursday deadline nears.

Meanwhile, Democrats are working a plan of their own. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California told Politico’s Jenny Hopkinson that she doubts Roberts has enough support for passage of his bill. Boxer supports labeling because, “I have a basic belief that people have a right to know what's in their food. Period.”

“I think this is more than a partisan issue,” Boxer told Politico. “There are a lot of people who think people have the right to know on both sides of the aisle."

Earlier this year, negotiations on labeling rules headed by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack failed between organic companies and conventional food manufacturers. Vilsack said the issue is now in the hands of Congress.

Rancho Mirage, California – Both labeling bills, among other issues, were expected to be discussed here this week, as the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association is holding its 2016 legal conference at the Ritz-Carlton.

GMA is the driving force of the anti-labeling laws, dumping $11 million into its successful fight in Washington State to kill the mandatory labeling bill there in 2013.

The trade group, which represents large corporations like Kraft and Pepsi, backs the Roberts and Pompeo versions that espouse a voluntary system to labeling food. In 2015, GMA spent $8.4 million on lobbying – and that was down from the high in 2013 of $14.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics

(Pompeo and Democrat G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, the two original sponsors of the House-passed bill, received the most money from GMA of anyone in the House.)

Kansas –That both bills are sponsored by Republicans based in Midwest farm country shouldn’t come as a surprise.  The majority of crops grown in the U.S. have been genetically engineered. According to the USDA, in 2015, 94 percent of soybean acreage and 92 percent of corn acreage are GE seeds.

And most of the large farm groups support Roberts’ bill, including the National Corn Growers and the American Soybean Association.

New Jersey – If you eat Campbell soups, Pepperidge Farm cookies or Prego pasta sauces, you will soon be seeing labels alerting you to its GMO ingredients. Based in Camden, N.J., Campbell Soup Co., as Reuters reported in January, was the “first major food company to respond to growing calls for more transparency about contents in food.”

Vermont – If its efforts in Washington don’t work, the Grocery Manufacturers are also fighting Vermont’s bill through the courts. It filed suit in 2014 in federal court and lost on its bid to get a preliminary injunction to halt the state law. The lawsuit continues to move forward.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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