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Food Labeling Act Clears House Ag Committee

As expected, the passage of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act by the House Committee on Agriculture has earned accolades from the grocery industry. The bill, initiated by U.S. Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), aims to establish a federal uniform labeling standard for foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and also for GMO-free foods.

Calling the committee's vote "further evidence of the growing support and momentum in Congress for this bill," Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), encouraged "the full House to pass it before the August recess." Added Bailey: "This critically important bipartisan legislation will ensure that Americans have accurate, consistent information about their food rather than a 50 state patchwork of labeling laws that will only prove costly and confusing for consumers, farmers and food manufacturers."

Bailey's opinion was shared by Claire Parker, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF), which says it represents "the entire American agriculture food chain – from farm to fork" on the issue of GMOs, and includes many industry groups, including GMA. "Today’s committee approval of this legislation is a strong sign of the support for national food labeling legislation that gives consumers the information they want in a truthful, consistent manner," affirmed Parker.

Noting that his organization "appreciates the leadership provided by Reps. Pompeo and Butterfield to move this legislation forward on a bipartisan basis," Peter J. Larkin, president and CEO of the Arlington, Va.-based National Grocers Association (NGA), observed: "We applaud the House Agriculture Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee for its efforts to implement a federal legislative solution to address the patchwork of state regulations that are driving up the cost of food and creating major logistical complications for food distributors. We believe that a uniform and voluntary standard, regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), will ensure that GMO labeling of food products is consistent and transparent to consumers nationwide." 

'Strong Support' From Trade Groups

When contacted by Progressive Grocer for its response to the news, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) offered its policy statement, which declares in part: "Retailers and the consumers they serve need one national standard for non-GMO food products; that standard must include clear criteria and definitions." The policy also says that any effort to provide consumers with information on GMOs is "most effective if undertaken as a cooperative effort among the agricultural, retail and manufacturing sectors of the food industry, the government and the scientific and consumer advocacy communities."

Further, in a joint letter with NGA, dated July 13, FMI affirmed its "strong support" for the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.

"It is also critical that the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture continue to serve as the nation's authorities for determining the regulations associated with consistent, accurate and appropriate labeling on food packaging and that this responsibility is not abdicated to any other governmental or nongovernmental entities," the letter advises, adding that the legislation should be moved "to the floor of the House of Representatives for full consideration as expeditiously as possible."

Congress Urged to Act

With an important hurdle cleared, the industry groups' focus has now moved to ensuring that the bill becomes law as soon as possible. According to GMA's Bailey: "It is imperative that the House and Senate move quickly to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. It will put a science-based framework in place that provides consumers across the country with uniform food labeling standards."

"It is urgent that Congress pass this legislation this year," asserted CFSAF's Parker. "The consequences of a failure to act will be felt by farmers, food producers and consumers across the country."

Meanwhile, new provisions "snuck" into the bill regarding the definition of "natural" have mandatory-labeling groups fuming about what they've long referred to as the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act.

"The DARK Act has always been a bad bill, but these new provisions are a drastic government overreach by undermining the ability of state or local governments from placing safeguards around production of GMO crops," said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of both Londonderry, N.H.-based organic yogurt maker Stonyfield and Just Label It, a Washington, D.C.-based group formed to promote the benefits of organic foods. "Moreover, we know consumers already believe so-called 'natural' foods are GMO-free, and this bill will write that confusion into law."

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