Congress to consider G.M.O. labeling bill
by Jay Sjerven
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Grower and food industry associations have voiced support for a bill introduced in the House of Representatives on April 9 by Representatives Mike Pompeo of Kansas, a Republican, and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, a Democrat, that aims to establish federal standards for the labeling of bioengineered foods. The bill, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, (H.R. 4432), would prevent individual states from passing legislation requiring the labeling of food and beverage products that contain bioengineered ingredients.
It would ensure that the Food and Drug Administration has the sole authority to determine under what conditions a bioengineered food may be required to carry a label. And it would establish requirements with regard to manufacturers making claims regarding the presence or absence of bioengineered ingredients in their products.
Joining Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Butterfield in sponsoring the bill were Representatives Jim Matheson of Utah, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. All are members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Ms. Blackburn is the vice-chairwoman of the committee. Upon its introduction, H.R. 4432 was referred to the energy and commerce committee for its consideration.
The bill was introduced at a time when the state of Vermont is considering passing legislation requiring the labeling of food and beverages featuring bioengineered ingredients and sold in the state.
“From the Kansas farmer’s harvest to a Kansas family’s table, our food supply is crucial to our economy, to our health and to our way of life,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The Sunflower State has relied on technological advances in order to feed the world, and this bill would ensure our continued success in providing safe, affordable and nutritious food.”
The bill would affirm a mandatory premarket biotechnology approval program. Essentially, a bioengineered organism would not be allowed to enter into interstate commerce unless its developer notified the F.D.A. of its intent to market the ingredient and provided supporting evidence of the trait’s safety, which the F.D.A., within specified time frames, would be required to evaluate and then approve or disapprove the developer’s application.
“If the Secretary (of Health and Human Services) determines that there is a material difference between a food produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism and its comparable marketed (non-bioengineered) food and that 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 secretary may specify labeling that would adequately inform consumers of such material difference,” the bill said. “The use of bioengineering does not, by itself, constitute a material difference.”
The bill specified what criteria must be met for a food producer to claim in a label that its food is not bioengineered and does not contain bioengineered ingredients. At the same time, such a claim “may not suggest either expressly or by implication that foods developed without the use of bioengineering are safer than foods produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism.”
The bill also outlined criteria that must be met should a producer want to indicate in labeling that its product was bioengineered.
Importantly, the bill asserted “no state or political subdivision of a state may directly or indirectly establish under any authority or continue in effect as to any food in interstate commerce any requirement for the labeling of a food by virtue of its having been developed using bioengineering, including any requirements for claims that a food is or contains an ingredient that was
developed using bioengineering.”
H.R. 4432 further would direct the F.D.A. to define what is meant by “natural foods” and what would be required to make a “natural,” “100% natural,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or “made with natural ingredients” claim.
In an op-ed published in the April 10 edition of The Hill, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Butterfield pointed out major world health organizations agreed bioengineered foods were safe and did not differ materially from related non-bioengineered foods. They charged efforts to require labeling of bioengineered foods have been irresponsible and ill informed.
“Food labels need to make sense and give consumers real, accurate information,” Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Butterfield wrote. “Instead of mandating labels based on the personal preferences of political activists, we believe the only mandatory information that appears on a food label should be decided by the F.D.A., and it should focus on the safety and nutritional content of a product.”
The day H.R. 4432 was introduced, a delegation of members of the North American Millers’ Association went to Capitol Hill to urge support for the legislation in the Senate. The millers met with Senators Pat Roberts of Kansas and Roy Blunt of Missouri, as well as with staff in the office of Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas.
“This is an important first step to foster the necessary dialogue regarding the food supply and appropriate communication to consumers,” said Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the American Bakers Association. “H.R. 4432 would reaffirm the F.D.A. as our nation’s leading authority over food safety and labeling. By empowering F.D.A. to conduct safety reviews and determine labeling mandates of new food ingredients, this bill offers a consistent national labeling standard to help companies inform consumers without the costly and confusing patchwork of labeling requirements derived from ballot initiatives and state and local legislatures.”
Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association, said, “Important food safety and labeling decisions should be made by the scientists and qualified policymakers at the F.D.A., not political activists and campaigns. A federal solution on G.M.O. labeling will bolster consumer confidence in the safety of American food, while giving farmers and food producers the certainty we need to continue providing safe, affordable food for American families.”
Ray Gaesser, an Iowa farmer and president of the American Soybean Association, added, “This bill is a common sense, science-based approach to an issue we realize is close to the hearts and minds of so many consumers. Americans want to know that their food is safe, and the solutions proposed in this bill will ensure that they have that information.
“Genetically modified soybeans have been in widespread use by American farmers since 1997. Not only have these applications been repeatedly tested and proven safe by the world’s most stringent food safety testing system, they have been so without a single documented instance of a human or animal health risk. Not one. That’s why, as farmers, we grow them, and as consumers, we feed them to our families.”
Proponents of mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods derided the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, calling it the “Deny Americans the Right-to-Know Act,’ or “DARK.” Scott Faber, senior vice-president of government affairs, Environmental Working Group, said, “If the DARK Act becomes law, a veil of secrecy will cloak ingredients, leaving consumers with no way to know what is in their foods. Consumers in 64 countries, including Saudi Arabia and China, have the right to know if their foods contain G.M.O.s. Why shouldn’t Americans have the same right?”
Marni Karlin, director of legislative and legal affairs for the Organic Trade Association, said, “Consumers, particularly the 8 out of 10 American families who buy organic products, want to know what is in their food. Rep. Pompeo’s bill ignores this consumer demand for information. Instead, it ties the hands of state governments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the F.D.A. concerning G.M.O. labeling. It is fatally flawed.”