A bill to impose voluntary labeling standards on foods made with genetically engineered ingredients — and block mandatory rules — is headed to the House floor, setting the stage for a showdown with implications for consumers and the biotechnology industry.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which passed the Agriculture Committee by a voice vote last week, has garnered 106 co-sponsors, 15 Democrats and 91 Republicans. A vote on the floor could come either Wednesday or Thursday.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) in March, would create a federal standard for the voluntary labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and preempt states from enacting their own mandatory labeling laws.
“I’m always concerned when you are trying to pass legislation that you think is right for the American people that lots of things could prevent it from happening,” he said. “That would certainly include that the White House might not sign this bill.”
But Pompeo said every indication he’s gotten from the administration — the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in particular —is that they think the proposal would work to inform consumers while advancing a growing industry.
As for Obama, Pompeo said: “I trust he’ll get this right.”
Though he has been silent on the question since elected president, then-candidate Obama raised the issue on the campaign trail in 2007.
“We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified,” he pledged.
Opponents of the proposal now before Congress are hoping Obama would uphold his campaign promise and veto the bill consumer groups have coined, “The Denying Americans the Right to Know, or DARK Act.”
“The whole purpose of this bill is to block state GMO labeling laws and rob the FDA of the ability to craft a national GMO labeling solution,” said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It and senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “Pompeo’s solution is to double down on the voluntary GMO program that has been a total failure and to block any mandatory disclosure by states or the federal government.”
Pompeo lashed back against the criticism, calling it a misleading characterization of his legislation.
“Show me the provision that denies anyone the right to know what’s in their food,” he said. “Show me the provision where a business that wants to label their food as non-GMO is prevented form doing so.”
Saying such language does not exist, Pompeo argued that critics of the bill should be more forthcoming about their position.
“What would be more honest is to say, ‘We favor a big government, mandatory provision that tells farmers in Kansas and food producers that you have to put something on the label because we think it’s important — not because it’s about health or safety, but because we, a radical left group, thinks it’s important,” he said.
Issuing a federal mandatory labeling requirement for ingredients and components of food that are not related to health and safety, Pompeo said is preference labeling.
“When does it end and when do you decide what preference ought to be honored?” he asked.
But Faber said the federal government already mandates the labeling for things unrelated to health or safety, like whether orange juice is from concentrate.
While consumer groups oppose Pompeo’s bill because it would overturn mandatory labeling laws that have already passed in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine, they’re also against what it would do to local governments that want to protect residents and non-GMO farmers.
The House Agriculture Committee approved changes to the bill that would preempt states and local governments from regulating any new technologies related to the production of GMO crops.
“This is no longer just an anti-labeling bill, it’s an anti-farmer, anti-regulatory bill that robs states, counties and local governments of their ability to regulate GMO crops,” Faber said, referencing an amendment made to the legislation.
Local governments, he said, have passed laws to put buffers between GMO fields and non-GMO fields, as well as schools and hospitals. Critics say the legislation would end that practice.
Proponents, however, say the environmental and consumer groups are interpreting the language of the bill incorrectly.
“This bill is a labeling bill,” said Mike Gruber, vice president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Despite what the other side is saying, he said, the bill does not pre-empt crop production, it preserves FDA’s authority to conduct reviews along with USDA of new technologies.
“I find it remarkable EWG testified before a congressional hearing that they don’t oppose genetic engineering and see promise in the technology, but litter Capitol Hill with rhetoric of threats to schools and children,” Gruber said. “It’s a little over the top and I’m being polite when I say that.”