GMO bill intensifies federal food fight

Getty Images

The fight over the labeling of genetically engineered food is heating up on Capitol Hill, as safety advocates mount a campaign to beat back industry-backed legislation that would leave the nation without a mandatory labeling standard. 
 
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) introduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 last week with lead co-sponsor Rep. G.K. ButterfieldG.K. ButterfieldEmphasis on diversity in Democratic convention lineup Congressional Black Caucus calls for peace after Baton Rouge Black caucus issues call to action MORE (D-N.C.). The bill would create a voluntary federal labeling standard, while pre-empting states from passing their own mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified — or GMO — foods.

With 20 co-sponsors —12 Republicans and eight Democrats, including Butterfield — backers of the proposal appear to be gaining momentum and say they are confident the GOP-controlled Congress will approve the bill. 

ADVERTISEMENT
While there is not yet legislation in the Senate, Pompeo said the measure has a path forward after years of debate over whether and how Congress should address concerns about the increased role of biotechnology in growing crops.

“This isn't a messaging bill, this isn't something the House intends to do so we can say we did it,” he told reporters. “The idea is to get the Senate to move on roughly the same timeframe that we're proceeding on.”

Food safety advocates say lawmakers will ultimately balk at the bill once they discover its implications.
 
“Members of Congress are really looking for a federal solution here,” said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety. “I think we’re going to get to that rubber meets the road point where members realize they are being sold on a bill that doesn't solve anything consumers are asking for, which is a mandatory labeling standard.”

Still opponents fear the sway — and vast resources — of the bill’s industry backers.

Groups representing major agriculture and biotechnology interests have poured millions of dollars into battles over state proposals to create mandatory labeling laws. The bill is an effort to block all of those efforts in a single stroke, said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
 
“Clearly this is a legislative Hail Mary designed to not only block states like Vermont from giving people the right to know what they’re eating, but make it much harder for the FDA to craft a national mandatory labeling solution,” he said.
 
Faber said the Pompeo-Butterfield bill would narrow the circumstances for when FDA can require disclosures down to health and safety concerns. The agency can now require a label merely to help consumers make more informed choices. 
 
The groups instead are pushing Congress to pass the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, introduced in the Senate earlier this month by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and in the House by Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). Their bill would require labels for all foods produced using genetically engineering ingredients and prohibit manufacturers from labeling genetically modified foods as natural.
 
Industry groups, however, argue that GMO crops, which have become ubiquitous in the national food supply, are essential for food affordability and food security. Forcing manufactures to create a label, they contend, would drive up product costs and confuse consumers.
 
“That would mean 70 to 80 percent of food they eat would have a GMO label on it,” said Denzel McGuire, the executive vice president of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). “We typically label the exception not the rule. When you go into the grocery store you don’t see products labeled not organic.”
 
GMA said it wants a labeling program based on “sound science.”

DeFazio countered that labeling the products with GMO ingredients is simple logic.
 
“The argument on their side is it’s generally recognized as safe and therefore it shouldn’t be on the label. Well red dye number 2 is generally recognized as safe, but it’s on the label,” DeFazio told The Hill on Thursday. “This is information consumers want.” 
 
DeFazio acknowledged that it is unlikely his bill will pass the Republican controlled Congress, but he said Pompeo’s bill wouldn't either — arguing it runs counter to GOP ideals.
 
“They are states’ rights people and they are for a capitalist system under the precepts of Adam Smith, who said you’re supposed to give information to the consumers that they want,” he said.

A Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 1,000 adults last year found that 92 percent of Americans want genetically modified foods to be labeled.
 
To date, the FDA has not found any health risks associated with GMOs and the current agency policy does not consider the inclusion of GMO ingredients in a product as information that must be disclosed.

Steven Druker, the author of the newly released book “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth,” said scientists and health officials don’t know for sure yet how GMOs will affect people because the testing hasn’t been done.  
 
“We have evidence of harm to animals that have ingested these products, but there have not been human clinical trials,” he said.
 
Crops that have been genetically engineered to the highest degree include soybeans, corn and canola.
 
“If the package says sugar and doesn’t specify sugar cane it’s from sugar beets and most sugar beets have been genetically engineered,” he said.
 
FDA Spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said manufacturers indicate through voluntary labeling whether foods have or have not been developed through genetic engineering.

“FDA has received citizen petitions regarding genetically engineered foods, including the labeling of such foods,” she said. “The agency is currently considering those petitions, and at this time, has not made a decision, in whole or in part, regarding the petitions.”
 
When asked if FDA supports one bill over the other, Eisenman said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
 
Pompeo, however, is optimistic his bill will be introduced in the Senate and make it to the President’s desk by the end of the year.
 
"There is not yet a companion bill ready to be introduced, but we think we're pretty close,” he said.
 
The Obama administration has said little on the GMO issue, despite a campaign vow that, under his administration, “We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified.”

Obama’s silence since those 2007 remarks has raised questions about whether the president would sign the Pompeo-Butterfield bill.
 
“Americans have called on Obama urging him to keep his word and put out a mandatory labeling standard,” O’Neil said. “We hope he will stand by his pledge and fulfill that for the American people.”