WASHINGTONThe trade groups in the natural products industry often collaborate, advocating for the same or similar policies on Capitol Hill.
In fact, the leaders of numerous trade organizationsincluding the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), the Natural Products Association (NPA), Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) and Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) meet once a month in the Beltway. At some of those meetings, the trade groups have discussed initiatives across the country that would require labeling of genetically-engineered foods or so-called GMOs (genetically modified organisms), one of the organization's leaders said.
But it's clear the groups have not come to a consensus on GMOs.
NPA has endorsed federal legislation that would require labeling of GMO foods. On the other hand, APHA's board of trustees has adopted a policy that advocates for a federal regulation through legislation or a regulatory proceeding in which companies could voluntarily disclose that their ingredients are free from GMOs.
"AHPA's members have diverse views when it comes to labeling products to disclose genetically engineered ingredients," AHPA president Michael McGuffin said Monday in a statement. "The AHPA board's action signals support for the broadly expressed consumer interest in making informed purchase decisions when it comes to GE [genetically engineered]/GMO foods, while recognizing a 'voluntary disclosure of absence' approach as the best regulatory option to accomplish this."
According to AHPA, at least half of the nation's state legislatures have considered GMO labeling in the past year. AHPA also acknowledged that lawmakers in Congress have introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. However, the association stated "the legislation would largely rely on 'guarantees' provided by ingredient supplies."
"It is possible that a voluntary program that motivates manufacturers to comply will provide more and better information to consumers than one based primarily on the promises of ingredient suppliers," McGuffin said.
The bipartisan legislation was introduced by two Democrats, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon. It would require FDA to adopt labeling standards for genetically-engineered whole and processed foods, including fish and seafood.
John Shaw, executive director and CEO of NPA, said in a statement the legislation is consistent with the organization's GMO labeling principles and "will lead the country on the path toward transparency that Americans are demanding."
The federal regulatory agency that oversees food, FDA, has stated that GMOs are as safe as conventional food. But others have questioned the impact of genetically-modified ingredients on humans and the environment at a time when many crops like corn and soybean have altered genes.
McGuffin told INSIDER he discussed AHPA's policy as it was developing with the other trade associations.
"And I do not view AHPA's and NPA's positions as contradictory, because AHPA has not acted to oppose the Boxer/DeFazio bills," McGuffin declared in an emailed statement Tuesday. "Nor has any other trade association stated that it would oppose the approach that AHPA has now taken."
Steve Mister, president and CEO of CRN, said the group's board of directors adopted principles about a month ago that are similar to AHPA's position.
If you [a company] want to say you dont have any genetically-modified ingredients, you should be able to do it," he said.
Mister is not aware of federal regulations precluding a company from making such a representation today. But he said it would be helpful for FDA to impose standards "so we dont have people claiming to be free of genetically-engineered ingredients if in fact they are not."
CRN, Mister emphasized, has not taken an official position on the Boxer/DeFazio bill. But he argued labeling legislation at the state or federal level should be limited to specific cases.
FDA or even the states stepping in and requiring some kind of label disclosure should be reserved for those cases where there is some sort of health issue," Mister said. It should be because there is a potential health concern or the ingredient is substantially different than what consumers are expecting and FDA has said time and again they do not see any health effects from these genetically-modified ingredients."
CRN had opposed Proposition 37, California's 2012 ballot measure that would have required GMO labeling. Although it was defeated, the initiative spawned state legislatures across the country to introduce similar bills. Opponents representing the food industry had complained Prop 37 would have resulted in increased food costs due to the labeling-related expenses.
Our members tell us anytime they are required to change labeling that comes at a tremendous cost," Mister said.
Representatives of UNPA feel national legislation is not tenable.
"By the time a draft bill reached the intense discussion and debate stage in the halls of Congress, with well-heeled and well-represented corporate interests coming into play, any final bill would likely be so watered-down and compromised (a Washington political reality) that it would not satisfyor remedythe issue for industry and the large number of consumers that say they want labeling," Loren Israelsen (president) and Frank Lampe (vice president of communications and industry relations) wrote in an article for INSIDER that will be published in the July/August 2013 issue.
"We are aware that several of the state-based initiatives have the potential to succeed, yet we believe that a consumer-driven market solution is the most efficient way to address the GMO-labeling issue, whether it manifests as a 'non-GMO' or 'contains-GMO' label structure," Israelsen and Lampe continued.
Shelley Ducker, director of communications and outreach for the CHPA, said her organization has "historically opposed GMO legislation at the state level."
"But we are still .. reviewing the Boxer legislation so we have no position on that yet," she said.
The Boxer/DeFazio bill was introduced in April. The Senate bill had nine co-sponsors while the companion legislation in the House garnered the support of 23 lawmakers including DeFazio. Most of the supporters were from the Democratic Party.
In the Democrat-controlled Senate, the GMO legislation would need to first be taken up by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The committee hasn't set a date for a hearing to consider the bill, according to congressional staff members who are familiar with the bill. Most bills don't pass through committee, a requirement before legislation can go to the entire Senate for consideration. DeFazio's office wasn't immediately available to comment on the status of the House bill.
The odds of the legislation being enacted are just 1 percent, according to Gov.Track.us, a project of Civil Impulse, LLC in Washington, D.C.
McGuffin also said it's unlikely the federal legislation will pass into law.
"In the meantime, however, several states are taking action so we need to find a federal solution that might actually have a chance of being passed," he said.
Just last month, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law the first GMO labeling bill. But the legislation doesn't actually impose labeling obligations unless four states including one that borders Connecticut pass similar bills; also, the GMO bills must be passed by a combination of Northeastern states representing at least 20 million people.
Shaw has said federal GMO labeling legislation is preferable to state laws.
"What's important is that our members need continuity and assurance of laws and regulations throughout the 50 states," he told INSIDER earlier this year. "What we don't need is an unfortunate patchwork of information, regulation or legislation that confuses consumers on what they should or should not buy depending on their own personal preference."