Food industry presses for voluntary GMO labeling standards

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Crucial players in the American food industry are pressing for legislation that would institute a national voluntary labeling system for products that contain genetically engineered ingredients, according to documents obtained by The Hill.

The effort follows expensive battles in California and Washington over state ballot initiatives seeking to impose mandatory labeling regulations for foodstuffs containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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Federal legislation imposing voluntary standards is needed to “guard against a costly, unnecessary and inefficient state-by-state system,” according to a memo being circulated among food industry trade groups.

A coalition led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is behind the effort, industry officials said.

Supporters of mandatory GOP labeling worry federal legislation could pre-empt state laws that would require the labels. 

Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, which backs mandatory labeling, said a voluntary system would provide consumers with no new information, since the FDA has allowed firms to label their GMO products for over a decade, and none have. 

He argued the industry is trying to divert attention way from growing support for mandatory labeling.

“They see the writing on the wall and they are now willing to do everything they can to keep consumers in the dark.”

Reached Tuesday, Louis Finkel, the GMA’s executive vice president for government affairs, said the group has been in discussions with lawmakers, “for quite some time,” and have been increasingly focused on a federal solution in the last two years.

“We started looking at this issue in a more holistic way,” Finkel said, arguing that it isn’t in consumers’ best interests, “to manage our labeling laws through political campaigns.”

He said the group, while supportive of a voluntary labeling system overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), remains steadfastly opposed to mandatory labels for products that have been deemed perfectly safe to eat.

“There is no material difference between genetically engineered ingredients and their conventional counterparts,” Finkel said.

Public safety and consumer interest groups that have long demanded mandatory GMO labels will oppose anything short of that goal, O’Neil said.

The memo being circulated does not include specific legislative language but rather lays out, in broad strokes, the contours of a bill that would impose new regulations on GMO products.

The industry proposal calls for mandatory labels for any products derived from genetically engineered plants — but only if they are found to present any risks to health or safety.

To date, no GMO ingredients have been deemed unsafe.

In the absence of any such designation, legislation outlined in the memo would direct the FDA to develop a new voluntary labeling system under which products could be labeled as “GMO-free.” The labeling system would also apply to any companies that wish to label products as containing GMOs.

The proposal would call for a formal definition of what constitutes a product that is “natural,” and other provisions intended to prevent consumer confusion.

It would also require mandatory FDA safety review of all new technology involved in the production of genetically modified foods before they hit the market.

Farmers have, for years, planted herbicide resistant, or Roundup Ready, corn; cotton; and soybeans, which allow farmers to spray their fields for weeds. Proponents argue that genetic engineering reduces the use of chemicals and lowers the cost of food.

They contend it is perfectly safe and vital to providing a sufficient food supply for the world’s ever-growing population. As much as 80 percent of the nation’s food products contain GMOs, the industry estimates.

But critics of the innovations warn that they could pose threats to public health or damage the environment.

The concerns have spawned bills calling for mandatory labels on GMO products in 26 states.

Though none have become law, the legislation has been the subject of major political battles in California, Oregon and, most recently, Washington state.

The fights have proven costly for both sides, though industry groups have far outspent the backers of the laws, pouring millions of dollars into opposition campaigns.

Every initiative has been defeated thus far, though more are expected to crop up in the months to come.

Industry groups maintain they support transparency but say a tapestry of mandatory state laws would be overly complicated and would ultimately drive up costs to consumers.

Numerous industry organizations, including the Food Marketing Institute and the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), told The Hill on Tuesday that they favor a national approach.

“AFFI’s members are supportive of a finding a workable federal solution,” spokesman Corey Henry said.

It is unclear how soon a formal bill might emerge, or who in Congress would introduce the measure.

The Center for Food Safety in 2011 submitted a petition calling upon the FDA to issue regulations requiring mandatory labeling, arguing legislation is not needed to support a federal rule-making process.

The group is also backing legislation introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would direct the FDA to enact regulations imposing mandatory labeling.

“You have to tell people the truth about your product,” Boxer said.

She argued that voluntary standards wouldn’t rein in “bad actors” who refuse to say whether food contains GMO ingredients.  Still, she called the industry’s support for legislation a positive development, considering that she has been calling for labels for 14 years.

 “I think it shows they are coming around,” she said. “I don’t read anything nefarious into it.”