Powerful farming and biotechnology interest groups announced Thursday they are banding together to push a federal voluntary labeling standard for genetically engineered food in an effort to stem the tide of state legislation seeking to mandate labeling.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food consists of 29 formidable trade groups that say they plan to lobby on Capitol Hill for a national standard that would allow manufacturers to voluntarily label food and beverage products made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In recent years, voters in states such as California and Washington have narrowly defeated ballot initiatives proposing mandatory GMO labeling, though not without dragging members of the new Coalition into expensive campaigns to defeat the measures.
The group says it will seek to empower the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “to establish federal standards for companies that want to voluntarily label their product for the absence-of or presence-of GMO food ingredients.” In addition, the Coalition proposes the FDA mandate labels for GMO food or ingredients that the agency deems a “health, safety or nutrition issue,” though no consumables currently fall in such a category.
The Coalition is also advocating the FDA define “natural” foods to include those consisting of GMOs.
Supporters of labeling said the Coalition has seen the growing demand for GMO labeling across the country and is now admittedly trying to preempt state attempts to inform consumers of scientifically-dubious genetically engineered food.
“These companies spent nearly $70 million in California and Washington State to defeat GE labeling initiatives. They know that the food movement’s power is growing and that labeling is not a matter of if but when,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “These companies have failed to win over consumers who overwhelmingly support the mandatory labeling of GMOs and now they’re trying to steal away consumer choice in Congress.”
States like Connecticut and Maine have recently passed legislation on labeling. Alaska’s legislature has passed a measure requiring the labeling of GMO fish and fish products. In Connecticut, critics say its new labeling law was gutted by lobbying pressure which requires four other northeastern states to pass their own GMO-labeling laws before the state’s takes effect. Those four states must collectively represent a population of 20 million people or more.
The Center for Food Safety says over 30 states are expected to introduce GMO labeling laws during the 2014 legislative session. In Oregon, a labeling ballot initiative is already being planned.
On the federal level, legislation requiring mandatory labeling of all GMO foods has been introduced in the Senate and House, though it is not supported by the Coalition.
A top member of the Coalition - the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a major food industry lobbying group - raised and spent the bulk of the overall $22 million that opponents of labeling sank into defeating Washington State’s ballot initiative on GMO labeling last year. That total number was three times the amount that proponents of labeling spent in the state. GMA was joined in its effort by allies such as biotech giants Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont.
“The legislation we’re proposing would preclude state legislation that conflicts with the federal standards,” GMA president Pamela Bailey said of the Coalition’s aim with the new proposals, The Hill reported.
Food industry trade groups, alarmed by the growing animosity against GMOs, began circulating plans for the voluntary labeling push in November - just days after Washington’s measure was defeated.
Federal standards like the ones the Coalition has now called for are necessary to “guard against a costly, unnecessary and inefficient state-by-state system,” a November memo among the GMA-led industry groups said. The Coalition wants an FDA-controlled system to maintain cheaper operations and avoid “the creation of a complicated patchwork of state-based labeling rules that would increase, rather than reduce, consumer confusion,” said Kraig R. Naasz, president of the American Frozen Food Institute, according to The Hill.
Critics of the Coalition’s approach point out that a “voluntary” law means nothing, as labeling GMOs is already legal and only done by choice.
“Voluntary labeling of GE foods is already permitted under the law, but no company has ever chosen to do so because GE foods offer consumers no benefits and only potential risk,” said the Center for Food Safety’s Kimbrell. “Instead of working together to meet consumer demand, GMA is using its deep pockets to ensure that congress and consumers are misled about their food supply.”
Supporters of GMOs say adverse effects of food that come from the manipulation of an organism’s genetic material are unproven at this point.
“If there was any indication GM ingredients weren’t safe, we wouldn’t be using them,” said Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association.
The US Department of Agriculture says over 80 percent of corn and over 90 percent of soy in the US are GMOs.
Yet science is also inconclusive on whether genetically engineered products can cause long-term harm to human health. At least, that is the consensus held by the several dozen countries which have banned or severely restricted their use worldwide.
“While risk assessments are conducted as part of GE product approval, the data are generally supplied by the company seeking approval, and GE companies use their patent rights to exercise tight control over research on their products,” the Union of Concerned Scientists said of GMOs. “In short, there is a lot we don't know about the risks of GE - which is no reason for panic, but a good reason for caution.”
The organization - a broad coalition of scientists and citizens dedicated to “rigorous, independent science” without “political calculations or corporate hype” - says there are concerns about GMOs beyond the basic health problems that have been linked to their consumption.
“Rather than supporting a more sustainable agriculture and food system with broad societal benefits, the technology has been employed in ways that reinforce problematic industrial approaches to agriculture,” the Union stated. “Policy decisions about the use of GE have too often been driven by biotech industry PR campaigns, rather than by what science tells us about the most cost-effective ways to produce abundant food and preserve the health of our farmland.”