Food producers won out over consumer groups in a fierce food fight today in the House of Representatives. The battle was over the requirement to label genetically engineered (GE) foods and was triggered by passage of a Vermont bill to start doing exactly that next year; the law was quickly followed by similar legislation in Maine and Connecticut. Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo’s HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act — a title that inspired competing titles like the Monsanto Protection Act and the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act by opponents — instead retains the status quo of voluntary GE labeling. It does so by blocking future federal GE labeling rules and also supersedes state and local laws on GE labeling and regulating GE crops. It offers “natural” and “non-GE” food producers the option to be voluntarily certified and labeled, much as organic foods are.
Pompeo’s bill, which no senator has yet adopted to carry through the Senate, passed the House 275-150, with Santa Barbara’s Rep. Lois Capps voting against it. The victory was touted by Pompeo as a win for farmers: “For the past two years we have worked hard to defend our farmers’ right to use the amazing advances in biotechnology that allow them to increase yields, while reducing water and pesticide use,” he said on his website. “These genetically engineered products are not only providing safe food for Kansans, but will feed the next billion people across the world.”
Following her “no” vote, Capps said, “This is not a debate about whether or not genetically engineered foods are safe — this is a debate about whether or not consumers have a right to know what is in their food. HR 1599 would limit consumers’ access to information about the food they eat by codifying the current failed system and preventing states like California from passing their own stronger GMO labeling rules. We need a more reasonable path forward that sets strong labeling standards and ensures consumers’ right to know what is in their food.”
The Center for Consumer Safety, which opposed the bill, points out that in the 14 years of the voluntary labeling program, not one GE food has been labeled. California’s Senator Barbara Boxer has cosponsored a bill to require that ingredient lists on food products identify genetically engineered foods — a goal for transparency she has been seeking since the 1990s when genetically modified foods were introduced — a distinction most consumers want to see. Of the Americans polled by the New York Times in 2013, 93 percent said genetically engineered or modified ingredients in foods should be identified.
Boxer’s office explained in a press release that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires more than 3,000 ingredients, additives, and processes be noted on product labels, but genetically engineered foods have not passed FDA’s “materially” different standard since no change in taste, smell, or other sensory observation can be discerned. Patents have been approved for genetically engineered foods based on material differences, Boxer noted, which contradicts FDA’s stance. Genetically engineered foods are already labeled in 64 countries around the world, including China, Russia, and the European Union, all major trading partners, she said.