WASHINGTONMore than 200 businesses and organizations have urged President Obama to require food companies to disclose GMOs (genetically modified organisms) on labels.
The businesses and groups referenced a 2007 speech from the Illinois senator-turned-president that pledged he would grant consumers the right to know if GMOs are present in their food.
Two states, Connecticut and Maine, have enacted GMO laws, although they don't take effect unless other states pass GMO labeling legislation. More than 20 other states are considering similar laws, the groups pointed out in a Jan. 16 letter to Obama.
"While we will continue to support state-level labeling efforts, we believe there should be a mandatory national labeling system," the letter stated. "FDA has the authority to require food companies to disclose the presence of these novel food ingredients, and the agency has already required labeling of more than 3,000 ingredients, additives and food processes."
Signatories of the letter include a diverse group of businesses and organizations such as Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Amy's Kitchen, Stonyfield Farm and the Center for Food Safety. One of the letter's signatories, Dr. Bronner's Magical Soaps, provided financial support for a GMO labeling initiative in the state of Washington that voters rejected in November.
Some lawmakers, including Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), joined in support of the letter. In April 2013, DeFazio and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would require FDA to label genetically engineered whole and processed foods. Most co-sponsors on the legislation were Democrats.
Plain and simple, this is about consumer rights," DeFazio said in a Jan. 16 press release. "People should have the ability to make an informed choice about what they feed their family and we know its not an impossible request of food manufacturers, because they already label GMOs in more than sixty countries."
According to the letter, FDA approved voluntary GMO labeling more than 10 years ago, yet "consumers are more confused than ever".
The FDA has maintained genetically modified ingredients are as safe as conventional food. But critics of GMOs question their safety and impact on the environment.
The White House on Tuesday did not respond to a request for comment on the letter.
Theresa Eisenman, an FDA spokeswoman, said food manufacturers are free to disclose on labels whether or not food has been genetically engineered so long as "such labeling is truthful and not misleading."
She said FDA is reviewing citizen petitions that concern genetically engineered foods, including labeling of such foods.
"FDAs role is to ensure that foods under its purview meet applicable safety, labeling, and other regulatory requirements. Foods derived from genetically engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as other foods, such as foods derived from traditionally bred plants," Eisenman said.
While campaigning in 2007 for the nation's highest office, Obama promised to require GMO labels, according to a YouTube video that is available on the website of Food Democracy Now, a grassroots movement that is among the signatories on the letter.
"We'll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified because Americans should know what they're buying," the president pledged in the video.
Although most consumers are in favor of GMO labeling, the Grocery Manufacturers Association is said to be advocating for a voluntary federal standard. According to a discussion draft disclosed in a Jan. 7 Politico article, such a standard would preempt conflicting state legislation (such as the GMO labeling laws in Connecticut and Maine).
The proposed legislation "would allow manufacturers to voluntarily make claims about the absence of bioengineered ingredients if the manufacturer has in place a traceability program to ensure bioengineered food is not commingled with the non-bioengineered food at any stage of production from farm to retail, while making allowances for unavoidable, inadvertent cross contact with bioengineered foods." GMA was unavailable to comment Tuesday.
The Center for Food Safety, which filed a 2011 petition requesting that FDA require labels on GMOs, opposes GMA's draft legislation.
According to the non-profit public interest group, FDA has received more than 1.4 million comments supporting its petition and mandatory labeling of GMOs.