Business-backed legislation establishing voluntary labeling standards for food made with genetically modified ingredients was introduced Wednesday to groans from safety advocates, who called it a thinly veiled effort to block mandatory requirements.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, offered by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), comes amid calls from consumer rights and food safety groups for increased federal regulations governing the ingredients — known as GEs or GMOs — that are present in about 80 percent of food in the United States.
Major players in the agriculture, food and biotech industries argue GMOs allow farmers to produce greater crop yields, and say they will be crucial to maintaining a sufficient food supply for the generations to come.
“It has to date made food safer and more abundant,” Pompeo told reporters Wednesday. “The next billion people need to be fed as well.”
But safety and consumer watchdogs question the long-term public health and environmental impacts of GMOs.
They support competing legislation at the state and federal levels that would impose mandatory labels on all food made with GMOs.
The Pompeo bill “codifies a broken voluntary labeling system,” said Scott Faber, senior vice-president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
“Americans overwhelmingly want the right to know whether there are GE ingredients in their food,” he said.
Faber called the bill a “legislative hail Mary,” unlikely to gain traction in the Senate.
Pompeo said he expected the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on which he sits, to hold a hearing on the bill as early as June, and touted bipartisan backing in the lower chamber.
Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Ed Whitfield (R-K.Y.) have signed on as co-sponsors.
The bill, backed by a coalition of business groups led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) would prohibit mandatory labeling regulations. The provision is designed to head off legislative efforts at the state and federal levels to impose more stringent labeling regulations on GMOs.
Currently, there are 66 legislative proposals across 27 states that would impose some form of mandatory labeling, according to Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs at the Center for Food Safety
“It’s clear that … they’re trying to do all they can in Congress to keep consumers in the dark,” O’Neil said.
But Pompeo warned that the flurry of state bills could lead to a “patchwork quilt” of varying state requirements that could disrupt interstate commerce and damage the economy.
His proposed voluntary system would create a uniform standard without unnecessary burdens on the private sector, he said.
Under the bill, mandatory labeling requirements would be reserved for any products derived from genetically engineered items found to present any risks to health or safety.
To date, there has been no such finding.
Without that designation, the legislation would direct the FDA to develop a new voluntary labeling system. The legislation calls for the FDA to issue regulations within two years of its enactment.
The bill tracks closely with legislative language circulated by the GMA earlier this year and the advocate groups contended that Pompeo was moving forward with the legislation at the bidding of industry. Pompeo bristled at the suggestion.
“It's mine,” he insisted Wednesday. “I own it.”