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.
This is an issue that very likely will be resolved this year. If you want to get ahead of it, attend The Food Leaders Summit April 27-29 at the Westin River North hotel in downtown Chicago. Several of the 27 sessions are expected to address the subject. See www.TheFoodLeadersSummit.com.
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."
However, one 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 labeling.
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 Assn., which represents most large food & 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 Association, 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 Assn., 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 done so. 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).