Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) on Feb. 19 introduced draft legislation intended to preempt states from mandating labels on genetically engineered (GE) foods. A similar bill—the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (HR 1599)—was passed last July by the House and would take away states’ rights to label and regulate GMO crops. The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to mark-up the proposal Feb. 25.
Critics have dubbed the House bill the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act because it would deprive consumers of the right to know whether genetically modified organisms are contained in their food. Advocates of mandatory labeling point out that 64 countries require labels on GE foods.
The Senate bill would amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national voluntary labeling standard for bioengineered foods, and for other purposes. What’s more, if passed the bill also would preempt Vermont’s law that requires labels on GE foods by July 2016 and bans use of the word “natural" and similar words that promote GE foods. Although Connecticut and Maine have passed GE labeling laws, they don’t take effect unless neighboring states adopt comparable measures.
In November 2015, FDA issued final guidance on voluntarily labeling for foods derive from genetically engineered (GE) plants. The agency encouraged industry to avoid statements such as “GMO free," “GE free" and “non-GMO," which are widely used on product packaging. Instead, FDA offered appropriate examples including, “Not bioengineered," “Not genetically engineered" and “We do not use ingredients that were produced using modern biotechnology." Other examples include “Not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology," “This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered," and “Our corn growers do not plant bioengineered seeds."
FDA does not require labels on foods derived from GE plants. Regulators can only do so under federal law if a “material difference" exists between the GE product and its traditional counterpart, the agency said. While FDA guidance doesn’t carry the force of law, it provides direction food marketers.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) President and CEO Pamela G. Bailey issued a statement on the Senate bill saying in part: “This common-sense solution will provide consumers with more information about ingredients in their food and beverage products and prevent a patchwork of confusing and costly state labeling mandates. We urge senators to stand up for working families, farmers and food producers and give this proposal the bipartisan support that it deserves.
“With Vermont’s mandatory labeling going into effect in July and other states considering their own laws, Congress must pass a national food labeling solution that offers farmers, families and food producers the certainty and access to the affordable and sustainable food supply they deserve. Time is running out, and consumers will ultimately pay the price of delay and inaction, as multiple studies have found that state mandatory GMO labeling laws will increase a family’s annual grocery bills by hundreds of dollars."
However, the Senate bill has been meet with swift condemnation. Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm, issued the following statement: “Just Label It strongly supports mandatory GMO labeling and urges the Senate to reject the DARK Act. Allowing food companies to make voluntary disclosures will simply perpetuate the status quo that has left consumers in the dark. Nine out of ten consumers—regardless of age, income or even party affiliation—want the right to know whether their food contains GMOs, and food leaders like Campbell’s have shown that mandatory GMO labeling will not increase food prices. As the Senate considers the DARK Act, we reiterate our support for a mandatory, national GMO labeling system that gives American consumers the same rights as consumers in 64 nations."
For more information, listen to “Healthy INSIDER Podcast 1: FDA Recommends Against Using ‘Non GMO’ Labeling" where Sandy Almendarez, editor in chief, INSIDER, and Heather Granato, vice president of content, Global Health and Nutrition Network, Informa Exhibitions, discuss the popularity of products labeled ‘non GMO’; legislation around the world regarding labeling of GMO products; and FDA’s take on the safety of products made with GMOs.