FDA not budging on labels for GMO foods

The Food and Drug Administration isn’t ready to embrace mandatory labeling regulations for foods made with genetically engineered ingredients, despite an aggressive push from lawmakers and advocates who cite health concerns.

Testifying before a House panel, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told lawmakers this week that the agency remains comfortable with a 1992 policy decision concluding that food made with genetically modified organisms — or GMOs — is not materially different from other products.

“We have not seen evidence of safety risks associated with genetically modified foods,” Hamburg said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing to assess the FDA’s 2015 budget request.

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She said the FDA is working on fresh guidance backing a voluntary system for GMO labeling, an approach critics regard as insufficient.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) criticized the FDA’s unwillingness to impose mandatory labeling requirements, saying the action is the least the government can do to give consumers more information about the food on their dinner table.

“It’s beyond me that we can’t have accurate labeling,” Lowey told Hamburg at the hearing. “The labeling can't hurt anybody but it's possible that the lack of adequate labeling could, of course.”

Food and biotechnology industry groups say they would be harmed by mandatory labeling requirements, which could be costly to impose and cast GMOs, present in as much as 80 percent of the nation’s food, in a negative light.

The business groups, and some in Congress, bristle at suggestions that GMOs could pose long-term health risks, saying that the technology has been in use for decades.

“There’s no scientific basis for concern,” said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), a member of the committee.

Food safety and organic food groups disagree.

Following Thursday’s hearing, the Organic Consumers Association issued a statement urging Hamburg to drop the agency's planned guidance and revisit calls for mandatory labeling.

“It is an insult to anyone who buys food in this country to go on record stating that the FDA has ‘not found evidence of safety risks’ associated with GMOs,” said Ronnie Cummins, the group’s national director.

He cited statement signed by 300 scientists and doctors saying that there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”

Democrats in both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that would require mandatory labels, and several states have taken up similar bills.

The legislative onslaught has prompted food industry groups, led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association to press for legislation providing for a voluntary labeling system.

The bill, yet to be introduced, would preclude states from passing mandatory labeling regulations.

Meanwhile, food safety groups and some Democratic lawmakers have pressed the FDA to move unilaterally to change course and require labels without an act of Congress.

While defending the 1992 policy, Hamburg left the door open to a potential policy shift.

“It’s an area of ongoing discussion,” she testified.