Bioengineered foods labeling bill introduced in Congress

by Jay Sjerven
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Senator Barbara Boxer of California and Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon on April 24 introduced companion bills in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would require the labeling of bioengineered foods. In each case, the bill is titled the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act and would constitute an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

The introduction at the federal level of a bill requiring labeling of bioengineered foods took place even as similar efforts were under way in several states. Indications were 52 bills with this aim have been introduced in 26 states thus far in 2013. In other states, such as Washington, there were drives to place on voter ballots propositions requiring the labeling of bioengineered foods.

On the Senate side, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act (S. 809), which has nine cosponsors, was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The House bill (H.R. 1699), which has 22 cosponsors, was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“Americans have the right to know what is in the food they eat so they can make the best choices for their families,” Ms. Boxer said. “This legislation is supported by a broad coalition of consumer groups, businesses, farmers, fishermen and parents who all agree that consumers deserve more, not less, information about the food they buy.”

Mr. DeFazio said, “When American families purchase food, they deserve to know if that food was genetically engineered in a laboratory.”

The bills include claims that the process of bioengineering food organisms results in material changes to food derived from those organisms, an assertion that is widely contested. They maintain individuals in the United States have a right to know if their food was produced with bioengineering for a variety of reasons, including health, economic, environmental, religious and ethical, and they note more than 60 countries, including important U.S. trading partners, have laws or regulations mandating disclosure of bioengineered food on food labels.

The bills point out Codex Alimentarius, the food standards organization of the United Nations, adopted a text that indicates governments may decide on whether and how to label foods produced with bioengineering, and the bills assert mandatory identification of food produced with bioengineering may help preserve the economic value of U.S. exports or domestically sensitive markets with labeling requirements for bioengineered foods.

The bills would exclude from the labeling requirement food that is served in restaurants, medical food, food that would be subject to the requirement solely because it was produced using a bioengineered vaccine, and food or processed food that would be subject to the requirement solely because it includes the use of a bioengineered processing aid (including yeast) or enzyme.

The legislation also would exempt from penalties for distributing misbranded products individuals who establish a guaranty or undertaking that is signed by, and contains the name and address of, a person residing in the United States from whom the recipient received in good faith the food and contains a statement to the effect that the food is not bioengineered or does not contain a bioengineered ingredient.

Also, agricultural producers would not be subject to penalties related to misbranding in the event their non-bioengineered crop or food was inadvertently contaminated by a crop or food that does contain a bioengineered material or was produced with a bioengineered material.

“Americans have the right to know about the foods they are purchasing,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the Center for Food Safety. “A vast majority of consumers have demanded that genetically engineered foods be labeled, and without mandatory labeling, American families are being left in the dark.”

Mr. Kimbrell noted the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act is the first federal bioengineered food labeling bill to be introduced in the Senate since 2000. He noted the Boxer-DeFazio bill comes on the heels of the passage in March of an amendment to the Senate budget resolution to require the labeling of bioengineered fish, introduced by Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, who is a co-sponsor of the Boxer-DeFazio bill.

“Now is the time for F.D.A. to reverse its two-decade-old policy decision against labeling,” Mr. Kimbrell said. “F.D.A. has the authority to mandate genetically engineered labeling, yet they refuse to act. We applaud Senator Boxer and Congressman DeFazio for taking action to bring F.D.A.’s labeling policy into the 21st century.”

Just Label It, a coalition of consumer, environmentalist, organic farming and related organizations, which seeks nationwide labeling of bioengineered foods, applauded the introduction of the bills.

“Americans want to know more, not less, about their food,” said Katey Parker of Just Label It. “More than 90% of Americans want the same rights as consumers in 64 other countries around the world. It’s time to trust American consumers with information about genetically engineered ingredients so they can make the best choices for themselves and their families.”

In response to the introduction of the bills, the Grocery Manufacturers Association told Food Business News, “G.M.A. and its member companies are committed to providing consumers with safe, healthy, and affordable food. We oppose special mandatory labeling for food products containing genetically modified ingredients because these labels could mislead consumers into believing that foods produced through modern biotechnology are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk.

“The F.D.A. and numerous of regulatory and scientific bodies, including the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the American Medical Association, have concluded that foods and beverages that contain genetically modified ingredients are safe and they are materially no different than products that do not contain genetically modified ingredients.

“G.M.A. supports F.D.A.’s existing science-based labeling policy with respect to foods and food ingredients derived from modern biotechnology. We believe that the F.D.A. policy provides a comprehensive framework for consumer protection and choice, and clearly serves the public interest. For those consumers who wish to only purchase products that do not contain genetically engineered ingredients, they already have that option by choosing those products labeled ‘U.S.D.A. Organic.’ The limited space on a food label should be reserved for the critically important food safety and nutritional information that can allow consumers to make safe and healthful food choices.”

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) said, “Although we haven’t seen the language of the proposed bill, it’s important to note that the biotech industry does not oppose food labeling. However, we have opposed proposals that require food labels that could confuse consumers into believing that foods containing biotech-derived ingredients are somehow different in safety and nutritional characteristics when compared with conventional or even organic foods, when this is not the case.

“We have also supported a voluntary and market-driven approach to food labeling. Labels that identify foods as ‘certified organic’ or ‘Non-G.M.O.’ provide the necessary information for consumers who are looking for such products. These are existing programs that have proved to be successful in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, advocates of mandating ‘G.M.O. labeling’ are working an agenda to vilify biotechnology and scare consumers away from safe and healthful food products.”

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