National GMO Food-labeling Bill Introduced

The bipartisan introduction of the Safe & Accurate Food Labeling Act by U.S. Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) to establish a federal labeling standard for food and beverages made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) has earned enthusiastic approval from industry groups, in contrast to strong condemnation from advocacy groups who say it would deprive states of the right to craft their own labeling laws.

"This federal legislation would eliminate consumer uncertainty created by a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws, advance food safety, inform consumers and provide consistency in labeling," noted Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). "The entire purpose of food labeling is to provide consumers throughout our nation with clear and consistent information. 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."

Bailey went on to stress the wholesomeness of GMO ingredients, which have recently become a flashpoint issue between those who believe it should be mandatory for foods made with such ingredients to be labeled accordingly and those who don't. "The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMO ingredients are as safe as any other food," she said. "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."

The alternative to a single federal labeling standard, added Bailey, would "create confusion, cause significant new costs for Americans, and lead to critical problems for our nation's grocery supply chain."

Other industry groups weighed in with their approval of the bill's introduction.

"Labeling has historically been and should continue to be reserved for food safety and nutritional purposes," asserted the Washington-based Snack Food Association (SFA), pointing out that the bill's introduction came just one day after SFA President and CEO Tom Dempsey and two member companies testified before the House Agriculture Committee on the costs and impacts of mandatory biotechnology labeling laws. "Though GMO foods have been proven safe, we understand that some consumers seek this information. The legislation calls for a voluntary USDA program to create a Non-GMO labeling certification process similar to the current USDA Organic seal. This allows food manufacturers to disclose this important information to consumers without hampering innovation and hurting small businesses."

According to Kraig R. Naasz, president and CEO of McLean, Va.-based American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), which also commended the proposed legislation, "A voluntary program, administered by FDA, to evaluate food labels that claim the presence, or absence, of genetically enhanced ingredients will bolster consumer confidence, while giving frozen food and beverage makers the certainty they need to meet the needs of America's consumers."

Food Fight Intensifies

Some organizations, however, have vastly differing views.

"The Pompeo bill, aptly dubbed the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act, is not only anti-consumer, but anti-democracy and anti-states’ rights as well," contended Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Finland, Minn.-based Organic Consumers Association. "The bill will take away the right of states to require GMO labeling and will legalize the routine industry practice of labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods as 'natural' or 'all natural.' It also includes a complicated scheme for voluntary labeling of non-GMO foods."

Added Cummins: "More than 90 percent of consumers want the same basic right that consumers in more than 60 other countries already have — a simple label stating whether or not a product contains GMOs. Research has shown that GMO labels will not increase food prices, contrary to industry claims. The sole reason to pass this bill is to keep consumers in the dark about what’s in their food."

"Not a single company has ever voluntarily disclosed the presence of GMOs in its food," said Scott Faber, SVP of government affairs for the Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG). "Voluntary labeling does nothing to solve the confusion consumers face at the supermarket, nor does it provide them with the information overwhelming numbers of consumers clearly want."

EWG noted that pro-labeling advocates back legislation introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) that would mandate national GMO labeling and help end consumer confusion over such label claims as "natural."

The labeling disagreement has heated up of late, with the pro-GMO Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CSAF), comprising many grocery industry players, accusing high-profile proponents of the national Just Label It (JLI) campaign of being hypocrites for failing to inform consumers that "the legislation they support would exempt up to two-thirds of all food products -- including restaurant foods."

"State labeling laws that are supported by the Just Label It campaign are riddled with carve-outs and loopholes," said CSAF spokeswoman Claire Parker, noting that under Vermont's labeling law, for instance, vegetable beef soup is exempted, but regular vegetable soup is covered.

Meanwhile, JLI, which urges Congress to reject legislation that would pre-empt state GMO labeling laws and restrict FDA's ability to mandate national GMO labeling requirements, has ramped up its plea to the agency to require labeling of genetically modified foods (GMOs) in light of the recent report from the U.N.’s International Agency for Research on Cancer that glyphosate, the main ingredient in the Roundup herbicide widely used on GMO crops, is now considered a probable carcinogen.

“Our worst fears are now confirmed,” said Gary Hirshberg, board chair of the Just Label It campaign, as well as founder and chairman of Londonderry, N.H.-based dairy producer Stonyfield Farm. "For 20 years, we have been bombarding tens of millions of acres of U.S. cropland with a probable carcinogen. There is no stronger rationale for GMO labeling than today’s news." Hirshberg added that the widespread adoption of GMO crops has led to a surge in the use of glyphosate, an herbicide designed to kills weeds but allow GMO plants to survive.

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