A food fight 20 years in the making comes to Capitol Hill

A food fight 20 years in the making comes to Capitol Hill
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In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wrote in a policy statement that genetically engineered foods (or genetically modified organisms, commonly known as GMOs) were not “materially different” from regular foods. In that policy statement, the agency severely limited what it considered “material” to only changes in food that could be recognized by taste, smell or other senses. This decision was also made years before any GMO foods were sold commercially.

Two decades later, we know that people care more about what is in their food than merely what they can taste, touch, smell or feel. Animal cruelty, climate impacts, pesticide use and production matter deeply to consumers. We also know that in the absence of labeling, consumers can be deceived about what’s in the food they are buying and feeding their families. 

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The FDA’s 1992 policy statement was a political statement, not a legal or scientific one. Unfortunately, its ramifications linger to this day.

People can, of course, have a difference of opinion about the relative safety of the process, the product and the pesticides involved with genetic engineering. Unfortunately, people in America don’t get to make an informed choice. Unlike 64 countries around the world, the United States does not require any form of labeling for GMOs. Consumers here don’t have the same access to information as consumers in Europe, Brazil, Russia or even China.

In the absence of a federal standard, states have taken the lead. In 2013-2014, more than 60 bills were introduced in more than 20 states across America. Despite the fact that polls consistently show that more than 90 percent of people support labeling, corporate-backed campaigns have managed to stymie the will of the people through confusion tactics and propaganda campaigns. (Eighty-nine percent of Republicans, 90 percent of independents and 93 percent of Democrats favor GMO labeling in the U.S.) In just four states where labeling has been presented as a ballot initiative, corporations like Monsanto and dominant corporate food companies have spent over $100 million to override the public’s right to know.

After corporations spent nearly $21 million in the most expensive state initiative in Oregon history, the vote there is still too close to call. With more than 1.5 million votes cast, there is only a difference of 812 votes. The state is now engaged in a mandatory recount.

The food fight over GMO labeling is now coming to Washington, D.C., where competing proposals are being considered by Congress. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerFormer Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer joins DC lobbying firm Hillicon Valley: Ocasio-Cortez clashes with former Dem senator over gig worker bill | Software engineer indicted over Capital One breach | Lawmakers push Amazon to remove unsafe products Ocasio-Cortez blasts former Dem senator for helping Lyft fight gig worker bill MORE (D-Calif.) have introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act (H.R. 1699/S. 809) to make GMO food labeling mandatory across the country. Supported by 63 representatives and 17 senators, this common-sense bill would direct the FDA to use its authority to enact a federal, mandatory GMO labeling policy that would guarantee all Americans the right to know what is in their foods. About 1.4 million people have written the agency in support of labeling.

However, a competing bill, misleadingly titled The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act by its sponsor, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R- Kan.), has been dubbed by consumers the Denying Americans the Right-to-Know (DARK) Act, as it would simultaneously prevent mandatory federal labeling and deny states the right to enact their own labeling legislation.

On Wednesday, the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee will meet at 10:15 a.m. to discuss this industry-backed bill from Pompeo. While most people are thinking of holidays with their families, certain members of Congress will be working to advance an agenda to prevent you from knowing what is in your holiday dinner. They are hoping to sneak past the American people, but Center for Food Safety and members of the food movement will be there to ensure that the people have a presence.


Kucinich is the policy director at Center for Food Safety. She is a board director of the Rodale Institute, America’s oldest organic research institute, and an adviser to “Food Forward TV,” a ground-breaking PBS series. She is married to former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Updated: 12:43 p.m. December 11, 2014