The House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would thwart Vermont’s requirement to label genetically engineered (GE) foods, moving one step closer to a federal solution in the escalating national debate over food labeling.
If enacted into law, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 would preempt states from requiring GE labels and create a voluntary national labeling regime. The bill, first introduced by Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) and G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina), has changed through discussions between the House Agriculture Committee and the Commerce Committee.
The legislation would create a program administered by USDA through which foods could be certified as being produced with or without genetic engineering, with a seal identifying covered products. Foods produced through genetic engineering have been in the food supply for about two decades, according to FDA.
“H.R. 1599 is the solution to an urgent and growing problem," said Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, in a statement. “The current patchwork system of varied labels interferes with the free flow of goods across the country, posing a real threat to interstate commerce and typically results in inconsistent and confusing information for consumers."
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) urged the House and Senate to pass the amended bill. The powerful trade association has been fighting Vermont’s attorney general in federal court to overturn the nation’s first GE labeling law. Vermont’s Act 120—requiring labeling of GE foods and preventing such foods from being marketed as “natural"—is set to take effect next summer. Connecticut and Maine also have labeling laws, but they won’t take effect unless neighboring states pass similar legislation.
“This critically important bipartisan legislation will ensure that Americans have accurate, consistent information about their food," GMA CEO Pamela Bailey said in a statement, “rather than a 50 state patchwork of labeling laws that will only prove costly and confusing for consumers, farmers and food manufacturers."
Just Label It, an organization that favors mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, on Monday blasted the latest version of Pompeo’s bill. Critics last year dubbed the legislation the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act.
Among other provisions that have angered critics, the House bill would prevent states and local governments from imposing any requirements regarding GE plants that are not identical to a requirement under section 461 of the Plant Protection Act (PPA). USDA is responsible for ensuring GE plants pose no risk of pests to other plants.
“The DARK Act has always been a bad bill, but these new provisions are a drastic government overreach by undermining the ability of state or local governments from placing safeguards around production of GMO crops," said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the yogurt maker Stonyfield and chairman of Just Label It, in a statement. “Moreover, we know consumers already believe so-called ‘natural’ foods are GMO-free, and this bill will write that confusion into law."
The House legislation would require FDA to examine the safety profile of new GE foods, replacing a voluntary consultation process that is currently in effect. As of 2012, FDA had completed 95 consultations on a number of crops, including canola, corn, cottonwood and soybean.
A number of government and research bodies have not identified safety concerns with GE foods, but consumers and others continue to question the effects of genetic engineering on the environment and whether bioengineered foods are truly benign. Consumer advocacy groups say consumers have a right to know what is in their food and point to 64 countries around the world that require labels on GE foods.
FDA would have authority under the bill to require labeling on GE foods, but only if two requirements were satisfied. First, the agency would need to find “a meaningful difference in the functional, nutritional, or compositional characteristics, allergenicity, or other attributes between" the relevant food and a comparable food. Second, the labeling disclosure must be “necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label or labeling of the food so produced from being false or misleading."
In testimony last month on Capitol Hill, Vermont Assistant Attorney General Todd Daloz urged lawmakers to reject the House legislation.
The bill not only would kill Vermont’s Act 120, Daloz said, it would “provide only an incomplete federal structure for the labeling of GE foods, and one that lacks any meaningful statutory standards and places much, if not all, of the responsibility for creating the structure in the hands of a federal agency."