House bill proposes national standard on GMO food labeling

From AP and staff reports, Farm and Dairy, 3/26/15

WASHINGTON — A bill introduced in the House of Representatives March 25 would make the Food and Drug Administration the only agency permitted to label food and beverage products made with genetically modified ingredients.

The bill, known as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, also includes a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to label “non-GMO” foods.

Introduced by U.S. Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, and G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, the bill calls for the FDA to set standards for GMO labeling.

Foods the department certifies as free of GMOs would have a special government label that companies could use to market their foods. User fees would pay for the program.

Pompeo said a government-certified label would allow companies that want to advertise their foods as GMO-free to do so, but it would not be mandatory for others. He said he hopes to see the bill passed this year.

Overrides state law

The voluntary labeling effort would create an industry standard and override any state laws that require the labeling.

Thus far, bills requiring GMO labeling have been introduced in more than 30 states. Vermont became the first state to require the labeling in 2014 — a law that is set to go into effect in 2016, but is facing a legal challenge from the food industry.

House Committee on Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway said the “growing patchwork” of mandatory state laws has created confusion and is driving up the cost of food.

“These state laws are not based on science and are both inconsistent and misleading,” Conaway said. “We have a federal regulatory process for the approval of biotechnology that is both scientifically sound and works.”

Response from across the food industry was largely supportive of the bill.

“It would improve clarity in foods carrying a GMO-free label by establishing uniform rules and a national certification program for foods that have been produced without bioengineering,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation.

Supporters say the bill could also reduce costs to both manufacturers and consumers.

At a February forum in Albany, New York, Rick Zimmerman, executive director of the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance, pointed to a 2014 Cornell University study that showed a $500 annual increase in food costs for a family of four if mandatory GMO labeling legislation were to be enacted.

“And for small manufacturers, the cost of complying with such a law may be too much for their businesses to sustain,” Zimmerman said.

Opposing view

Advocates for labeling genetically modified products, including Consumers Union, urged Congress to reject the bill, in particular a provision that would allow a “natural” label on genetically engineered food.

“Allowing the ‘natural’ label on genetically engineered food would legalize a deceptive practice,” Consumers Union said in a statement.

Andrew Kimbrell, of the advocacy group Center for Food Safety, called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act “a faulty and disingenuous attempt to assuage consumer concern.”

“The most effective way to provide consumers with the full universe of information about their food is through mandatory labeling, nothing less,” Kimbrell said.

A February poll by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association found that 87 percent of Ohio voters want genetically enhanced foods labeled and 61 percent disapprove of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.