WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The debate over the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients has reached a congressional primary contest in south-central Kansas, and outside money is flowing into the heated race over the issue.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican who represents Kansas, introduced federal legislation in April that would prohibit states from requiring mandatory labeling of bio-engineered foods. His legislation enjoys support among farm groups because the majority of the nation’s corn and soybean crops are genetically engineered to resist insects and herbicides and the industry contends foods containing them are safe.
But challenger Todd Tiahrt, a former congressman, has made Pompeo’s bill a campaign issue in the bruising primary challenge for the 4th District. Tiahrt gave up the House seat in 2010 for an unsuccessful GOP primary run for the U.S. Senate against Jerry Moran. Tiahrt wants his old job back and is arguing that Pompeo has sold out to big agricultural interests such as Monsanto rather than being responsive to consumers who want to know what is in the food their family eats.
Now, a flood of outside money from political action committees fixated on the topic is entering the fracas during the final days leading up to the Aug. 5 GOP primary.
A GOP primary race between “two very conservative men in the middle of the country” wasn’t even on the radar of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Food Policy Action until 10 days ago, when the group started noticing Tiahrt’s comments in campaign debates and the press, said Claire Benjamin, the director of Food Policy Action.
The group said Tuesday it will spend $40,000 for digital advertising supporting Tiahrt’s candidacy on social media outlets, including Facebook. The Kansas primary is the only primary contest into which it is putting its money, she said.
“This is really the first time we are seeing, in any state, food be potentially a deciding factor in an election,” Benjamin said. “And that is really an important thing to note for us because we believe these are values issues and people want to vote on these issues.”
Also just getting involved is Every Voice Action, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee. It has begun airing television ads this week in Kansas supporting Tiahrt and has placed orders totaling more than $98,500 in television advertising.
Meanwhile, the American Chemical Council reported in a regulatory filing on Monday that it was spending $165,200 for advertising supporting Pompeo. Its website says the advertising is meant to compliment Pompeo for his support of policies that the group says grow the economy and support jobs.
Jim Richardson, Pompeo’s campaign manager, said the congressman offered the labeling bill to help Kansas farmers and Kansas consumers.
“It ensures that Vermont and California can’t dictate what type of crops Kansas farmers grow, and it keeps food prices low at the grocery store,” Richardson said in an email.
But Tiahrt said Tuesday that his message is resonating with voters on the campaign trail in Kansas.
“Moms want to know what is in their kids’ foods. People want to know,” Tiahrt said. “They are upset that someone wants to withhold information from them. They don’t think that is the role of the federal government.”
Pompeo’s bill also contains “massive regulations” on the natural foods industry that prohibit them from even implying natural foods are safer than bioengineered foods, Tiarht said.
Kansas farm groups contend they do not oppose labeling for genetically engineered foods but say they want any laws to be consistent across the country instead of a patchwork of state regulations.
“Political campaigns bring out different things, but candidates need to focus on what is good for Kansas,” said Tom Tunnell, executive director of the Kansas Feed and Grain Association.
No mainstream science has shown bioengineered foods to be unsafe. But opponents say not enough testing has been done.