WASHINGTON—A U.S. Congressman from Kansas today introduced a bill that would block states from requiring labeling of foods that have been genetically modified and preclude the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from imposing mandatory labels based solely on the fact that the food includes bioengineered ingredients.
The "Safe and Accurate Labeling Act of 2014" affirms the authority of the FDA to require a label for foods that are considered unsafe and would eliminate the potential for a patchwork of state regulations that could drive up food costs, mislead consumers and burden farmers, Rep. Mike Pompeo, the Republican who introduced the legislation, said in a news release.
Stacy Forshee, 5th District Director of the Kansas Farm Bureau, voiced her support for the bill and touted the benefits of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) for farmers. She warned GMO labeling could impose financial burdens. According to one estimate, groceries for a family could increase by $400 per year.
"If they [GMO foods] were unsafe, I wouldn't feed them to my family and I wouldn't expect you to feed them to yours as well," said Forshee, a farmer with a 2,000-acre spread in Cloud County, Kan., in a conference call with Pompeo.
The American Soybean Association expressed support for the bill, which would also require FDA to review new bioengineered ingredients and have no objections or safety concerns before they could enter the market.
Food activists who have been advocating for mandatory labeling of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) immediately pounced on the legislation, dubbing it the “Deny Americans the Right-to-Know Act (DARK Act)."
In a conference call today with journalists, Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) characterized the bill as a "legislative Hail Mary that is dead on arrival." Faber, vice president of government affairs, said the legislation also would allow companies to label food as "natural" even if it contained bioengineered ingredients. FDA hasn't decided whether GMO foods can include "natural" claims, and dozens of lawsuits across the United States have been filed against food manufacturers for using the term on labels.
If Congress passed Pompeo's legislation, FDA would have authority to impose labels on genetically engineered foods—but only under limited circumstances. The agency would have to find a "material difference" between foods that contained bioengineered organisms and comparable foods that were marketed, and "disclosure of such difference is necessary to protect health and safety or to prevent the label or labeling of such food from being false or misleading."
The labeling of unsafe foods suggests FDA would authorize such products to enter the market.
"In the U.S., we don't label dangerous foods," Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs with the Center for Food Safety, told reporters. "We take dangerous foods off the marketplace."
O'Neil said consumers' right to know that food contains GMOs is not related to whether or not they are safe. FDA has concluded GMO foods are safe to eat.
According to the Center for Food Safety and other activists, consumers overwhelmingly have expressed support for GMO food labels for a variety of reasons. For instance, some consumers are concerned about the effect of such foods on conventional farmers and the increase in applications of herbicides on crops, while others have religious objections to combining traits of an animal with that of a plant, O'Neil said.
"Consumers want to know what is in their food," said Marni Karlin, director of legal and legislative affairs with the Organic Trade Association.
Sixty-four countries have GMO labeling laws. The United States is not one of them, prompting states across the country to introduce GMO labeling ballot initiatives or legislation. Last year, more than 50 GMO labeling bills were introduced in 26 states, including Hawaii, Indiana, Missouri, Vermont and Washington, according to the Center for Food Safety.
Faber said there are currently 66 bills and ballot initiatives pending in 27 states.
Connecticut and Maine have even placed laws on the books, although the labeling obligations aren't triggered unless other states pass similar bills.
On Capitol Hill last year, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. The piece of bipartisan legislation would require labels for genetically engineered whole and processed foods.
"The best solution would be a mandatory federal labeling system that discloses the presence of GE ingredients on the back of the package," Faber said.
Several groups have expressed their support for a federal bill. Early this year, more than 200 businesses and organizations urged President Obama to require food companies to disclose GMOs on labels. The letter 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.
"While we will continue to support state-level labeling efforts, we believe there should be a mandatory national labeling system," the groups wrote to Obama. "FDA has the authority to require food companies to disclose the presence of these novel ingredients, and the agency has already required labeling of more than 3,000 ingredients, additives and food processes."