2015: The Year GMO Labeling Began

With so many forces at work, it looks like there's no avoiding the issue this year.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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March 2015 was an eventful month for the subject of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. The two tempests stirred up by recent news and all the other issues in this long-running debate look to be headed for some kind of resolution this year – although the two sides are no closer today than they’ve ever been.

On March 20, the FDA proclaimed recent genetically engineered apples and potatoes “are as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts,” thereby removing any regulatory hurdles to their introduction to the market. Although just because there are no regulatory hurdles doesn’t mean there aren’t considerable market and consumer acceptance obstacles.

The entire purpose of food labeling is to provide consumers throughout our nation with clear and consistent information

– Pamela Bailey, Grocery Manufacturers Assn.

And on March 25, a bipartisan bill was resubmitted to the House of Representatives that would require the FDA to review genetically engineered ingredients intended for food and to decide on a case-by-case basis if a “contains GMOs” label is necessary for a resulting food product. Perhaps more importantly – and more contentious – the bill also would prevent individual states from creating their own GMO labeling laws.

Curiously, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” (HR-1599) seems to imply an unsafe food product would be allowed on the market as long as it carried the warning label – not exactly part of the FDA’s mission statement.

Another tricky part of the bill goes so far as to allow GMO-containing foods to be called “natural.” And that apparently would require the FDA to come up with a definition of natural – something the agency for years has been avoiding. There also are doubts that the FDA is sufficiently equipped, staffed and funded to take on the duties of GMO investigation.

The bill is a slight revision of last year’s identically titled bill, which also was introduced by Reps. Michael Pompeo (R-KS) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC). That bill garnered lots of media attention and some cosponsors, but it only got as far as a committee hearing in December.

The only key change in the 2015 bill is a provision to allow voluntary “GMO-free” labeling, with USDA being charged with creating a program or process for that.

“We took the positive feedback we received after our hearing in December and have been meeting with key stakeholders to ensure this is the right policy for both producers and consumers,” said Pompeo. “Our goal for this legislation remains to provide clarity and transparency in food labeling, support innovation and keep food affordable.”

While nothing’s certain in Washington, Pompeo’s office is optimistic the bill will become law this year because there is bipartisan support for it. However, it will need to make it through a few more committee meetings this summer and to find sponsors for a senate version. “We hope to have it on the president’s desk by the end of the year,” said a Pompeo spokesperson.

The bill got the expected statements of support. “[American Frozen Food Institute] Lauds Legislation in Support of Responsible Food Labeling.” Substitute Snack Foods Assn., International Dairy Foods Assn., National Milk Producers Federation, Washington Legal Foundation and more for AFFI in that headline.

The powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents most large food and beverage processors, has been a staunch supporter all along. “The entire purpose of food labeling is to provide consumers throughout our nation with clear and consistent information,” said President/CEO Pamela Bailey. “Congress must pass a bipartisan bill this year to ensure Americans continue to have access to consistent FDA-approved and science-based standards for food labeling.

“It’s important to know that this technology has been around for the past 20 years, and today, 70-80 percent of the foods we eat in the United States contain ingredients that have been genetically modified,” she continued. “The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMO ingredients are as safe as any other food. The Food and Drug Administration and major scientific and health organizations such as the American Medical Assn., National Academy of Sciences and World Health Organization all have found GMOs are safe for humans and positive for the environment. More than 2,000 studies show a clear consensus among the world’s leading scientific organizations that GMO ingredients are safe.”

But other press release headlines warned: “Consumers Union Urges Congress to Oppose Bill to Prevent States from Labeling GMO Foods.” Ditto for Organic Consumers Association, Environmental Working Group and Just Label It, among others.

There is urgency for some form of GMO labeling. Last year, Vermont became the first state to require labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients. However, the law’s effective date is in 2016, and already there are legal challenges.

Several smaller municipalities, cities and counties, also have passed labeling laws. And while every one of a handful of state ballot initiatives requiring labeling has failed, the most recent one, last November in Oregon, failed by just 812 votes out of 1.5 million cast (just 0.06 percent).

Simultaneously, voluntary certification and labeling of non-GMO foods by such organizations as the Non-GMO Project is growing.

So there certainly is evidence that many Americans – maybe not a majority but a significant number – want to at least know if the food they buy has GMOs – even though there is no credible scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful.

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