Public health and environmental groups appear to be losing the fight to keep food with genetically modified ingredients off the dinner table.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) handed the biotechnology industry another win this week when it deemed a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon safe to eat and denied a petition from the Center for Food Safety to issue mandatory labeling rules.
The actions come about four months after the House passed hotly contested legislation to keep states from issuing mandatory labeling laws for foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs and now the Senate is weighing its own options on the issue.
The industry-backed Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food (CFSAF), which has spent millions on efforts to block the mandatory labeling of GMOs, called consumers the big winners.
“Common sense and science prevailed when the House passed a uniform, national labeling standard bill,” CFSAF Spokeswoman Claire Parker said. “And other recent decisions, such as the approval of GE salmon, demonstrate that biotechnology is proven and holds great promise for ensuring consumer access to safe, affordable food.”
Anti-GMO groups vehemently refute any claims they’re losing ground in the battle to keep genetically engineered foods out of the consumer space.
“It’s important to remember that since 1997, almost 18 years, through market campaigns we’ve been able to halt genetically engineered tomatoes and potatoes, and the commercialization of genetically engineered wheat and rice,” said Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety.
After years of research and investment, he said,the only genetically engineered animal industry has been able to come up with is this “pathetic fish.”
“I think it’s the technology that’s in trouble,” he said. “If that’s all you can do, how are you going to compete in the marketplace?”
In March, however, the FDA approved an apple that’s genetically engineered not to brown. And now, some say the approval of a salmon that’s genetically engineered to grow to market size at a faster rate than its farm raised counterpart signals more engineered food is on the way.
“I would certainly hope the demonstration of a functional regulatory pathway that will allow these products to reach the market would encourage more products to follow,” said L. Val Giddings, senior fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF)
Biotech companies, he said, are already working on genetically engineered pigs, including one with higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids to make bacon healthier and another that’s engineered to excrete less phosphorus to make it more environmentally friendly.
In a call with reporters Thursday, Laura Epstein, a senior policy analyst at FDA, said the agency could not comment on applications that might or might not be pending due to confidentiality concerns.
Giddings said these technologies provide real and reachable solutions for urgent problems.
“Anyone concerned about sustainable agriculture has to welcome these technologies that are improving our ability to produce food, feed and fiber while reducing our environmental footprint,” he said. “It is not possible to imagine we could feed 10 billion people in 2050 without dramatically increasing our agricultural productivity and you can’t do that with Victorian farming techniques.”
Anti-GMO groups point to actions at the state level for signs they are gaining ground. A federal judge in Vermont refused to enjoin the state’s mandatory labeling laws despite a legal challenge now making its way through the courts. And though the House passed a federal bill to preempt states from issuing their own mandatory labeling laws, the bill has yet to be offered in the Senate.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) — one of the biggest groups lobbying against mandatory labeling — however, claims to be working with Sen. Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowPerdue says he will advocate for agriculture spending RNC drops six-figure ad buy for Supreme Court, healthcare fight Five things to watch for in Supreme Court showdown MORE (D-Mich.) and the Senate Agriculture Committee on legislation.
But GMA and the committee are being tight lipped about their plans.
“No agreement on a path forward has been reached,” a spokesperson for the committee said in a statement to The Hill. “Sen. Stabenow believes that for any solution to pass the Senate, it must establish a national system of required disclosure that would ensure consumers get the information they want about their food, while also solving the problem of a 50-state patchwork of regulations.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE has long said QR codes on labels of food packaging could strike the right balance on the issue. Like barcodes, QR codes can be scanned, but consumers need a smartphone and appropriate app to receive information about what’s in a product.
Vilsack told Politico this summer that QR codes are a way to provide consumers with the information they’re asking for without signaling there is anything wrong with a product.
In a statement to The Hill, Lisa Archer, director of the food and technology program at Friends of the Earth US said the use of QR codes is discriminatory to the third of Americans who either can’t afford a smartphone, live in rural areas with poor internet access or are of an older generation.
“FDA’s approval of GMO salmon makes it all the more urgent that Congress require mandatory, universally accessible GMO labeling that any consumer can read on the package when they’re choosing what to feed their families,” she said.
Friends of the Earth is prepared to fight any attempts to attach the House bill as a rider on appropriations legislation in the Senate, a move Archer said would be a sneak attack on the 93 percent of Americans who support the labeling of GMOs.
Advocates losing ground in GMO fight
By Lydia Wheeler - 11/22/15 08:00 AM EST