Major players in the American food industry formally launched an effort Thursday to head off regulations requiring labels on genetically engineered foods through the creation of a set of less restrictive federal standards.
The push for voluntary federal labeling standards, first reported by The Hill in November, follows expensive battles in California and Washington state over ballot initiatives seeking to impose mandatory labeling regulations.
The group’s proposal would require labeling for any products deemed by the Food and Drug Administration to carry a public health threat — though, to date, none has — and impose a new mandatory pre-market technology review process at the agency.
At the same time, the measure would put an end to a growing number of mandatory bills that have cropped up in state legislatures around the country.
“The legislation we’re proposing would preclude state legislation that conflicts with the federal standards,” Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said.
The group is leading the push for a voluntary system and began circulating an outline for potential legislation months ago.
“We don’t know of any specific plans for a specific bill at this point, but we are going to redouble our conversations on the Hill as a coalition,” Bailey said Thursday.
Food safety and consumer watchdog groups that are demanding a mandatory federal system are backing competing legislation now pending in both chambers of Congress. The mandatory bills appear stalled.
Advocacy groups maintain that consumers have the right to know what is in the food they buy. They question whether the modified ingredients could pose long-term risks to public health or the environment.
The watchdogs derided the industry effort as a blatant attempt to keep the American public in the dark.
"Voluntary labeling is an absolutely ineffective policy solution and is not a substitute for mandatory labeling,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety. “Instead of working together to meet consumer demand, GMA is using its deep pockets to ensure that congress and consumers are misled about their food supply.”
But the industry groups contend GMO — also more simply called genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) — products are no different than any other food, except that the genetically modified ingredients reduce costs and increase crop yields.
“If there was any indication GM ingredients weren’t safe, we wouldn’t be using them,” said Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association.
The practice has been around for roughly two decades and as much as 80 percent of the food consumed by most Americans contains GMO ingredients.
“All available science has shown that GMOs are safe,” Bailey said. “This technology is not new, it's been used safely in our food supply for 20 years.”
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, according to an early draft of the industry proposal.
To date, the FDA has made no such finding with regard to GMOs.
In the absence of any such designation, the legislation 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, according to the draft.
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.
“It’s another layer to the regulatory process,” said Cathleen Enright, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “If we achieve through that review increased consumer confidence ... then we will have achieved our goal.”
By pursuing the federal standard, the industry groups are seeking to end the string of fights in states around the country. GMO-related bills have been introduced in more than two dozen 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.
State laws, if enacted, would present the industry with a complex and disparate set of labeling standards that could vary throughout the country, industry groups warm.
Thus, the federal approach shifts the debate squarely to Washington and “prevents the creation of a complicated patchwork of state-based labeling rules that would increase, rather than reduce, consumer confusion,” said Kraig R. Naasz, president of the American Frozen Food Institute, one of the coalition members.
Current FDA policy, rooted in a 1992 decision, does not consider the inclusion of GMO ingredients in a product as information that must be disclosed. But labeling advocates contend the president has the authority to issue regulations requiring labels under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Lawmakers and food safety advocates point to remarks made by President Obama in 2007, when he was running for office.
“We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified,” he pledged.
The administration has remained largely silent on the GMO issue, despite the high-profile state campaigns to pass labeling laws and increasing pressure from activist groups.
Pressed on the issue this week, FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor, who formerly worked for the biotechnology firm Monsanto, said he was staying out of the discussions.
This story was updated with additional information at 3:38 p.m.