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Bill requiring GMO fish labels flops in Senate

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PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP/EO MEDIA GROUPSALEM — A bill that would require genetically engineered fish to be labeled in Oregon has died in committee but the proposal will likely be resurrected next year.

House Bill 4122 was approved 32-27 earlier this month by the House and was referred to the Senate Committee on Health Care, which did not act on the bill by the legislature’s Feb. 23 deadline.

Supporters of the bill said it would bolster Oregon’s fishing industry by allowing consumers to easily discern between local wild-caught salmon and a biotech variety approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year.

Critics of HB 4122 argued that labeling would unnecessarily alarm consumers about the safety of such fish and claimed the bill was premature because the FDA is still determining whether federal labeling guidelines for such salmon are appropriate.

Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, the committee’s chair, said during a Feb. 23 hearing that she was generally supportive of HB 4122 but it was “dropped in our lap” only recently, so there wasn’t sufficient time to discuss it during this year’s short legislative session.

Originally, HB 4122 would have lifted Oregon’s ban against local regulations on genetically engineered crops, which the Legislature approved in 2013 as part of a broader package of bills passed during a special session.

The Oregon Farm Bureau vigorously opposed the reversing this pre-emption statute, arguing it would create a patchwork of conflicting county ordinances across the state. Proponents said local control was necessary due to insufficient regulations on biotech crops at the state and federal levels.

However, the initial language of HB 4122 was replaced with the fish labeling provisions, which won the approval of Oregon’s salmon industry but continued to face opposition from biotech supporters and food manufacturers.

The Center for Food Safety, which supported both versions of HB 4122, will continue to educate legislators about genetic engineering in anticipation of proposals being revived in 2017, said Amy van Saun, legal fellow for the non-profit group.

The fish labeling component may be rendered moot by 2017, depending on federal action, said Scott Dahlman, policy director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an industry group that opposed the bill.

However, Dahlman said he wouldn’t be surprised if the biotech pre-emption issue will be raised during the longer legislative session next year.

Mateusz Perkowski is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.