FDA refuses to require GMO labeling

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 19, 2015 - The Food and Drug Administration has refused to consider requiring the labeling of biotech foods, affirming its longstanding policy that there's no legal basis for mandating such disclosure on products that are essentially the same as their conventional versions. >

The FDA decision came in denying petitions filed by the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group that has long fought to stop or restrict the commercialization of agricultural biotechnology, and the Truth in Labeling Coalition.

The FDA action comes as lawmakers are nearing agreement on legislation that would bar states from requiring the labeling of GMO foods while possibly requiring disclosure through smartphone codes and on the Internet. Appropriators say they are open to including the legislation in a fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that they are writing.

“The petition does not provide evidence sufficient to show that foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class, differ from foods derived from non-GE plant varieties in any meaningful or uniform way, or that as a class, such foods present any different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding,” FDA said in its 35-page response to the Center for Food Safety.

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The agency separately denied petitions asking it to require labeling of genetically engineered salmon, which the agency approved on Thursday.

“The FDA announcement shows that there is a clear path forward for bipartisan compromise in support of consistent, science-based, factual food labeling and ends any chance of a federal mandatory on-package labeling requirement,” said Claire Parker, spokesperson for the Coaliton for Safe Affordable Food.

Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said FDA “made the right decision for the right reasons.”

“We look forward to continuing to work with Congress to enact a uniform national standard for food labeling that would prevent a costly and confusing patchwork of state labeling mandates,” she said. 

The first state GMO labeling law is set to take effect in July in Vermont, which is adding urgency to the congressional effort to pass a preemption measure. 

“We're getting close” to agreement on the labeling legislation, said Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who has been working with the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, on the issue.

The Agriculture Department has been assisting in developing the electronic disclosure plan, Stabenow has said.  

However, Stabenow's staff issued a statement late Thursday cautioning that no deal had been reached yet. 

“Stabenow believes that for any solution to pass the Senate, it must establish a national system of required disclosure that would ensure consumers get the information they want about their food, while also solving the problem of a 50-state patchwork of regulations. Senator Stabenow is willing to play a leadership role on this issue but only if it can be done in a bipartisan way and if stakeholders are willing to step up and engage in meaningful ways," the statement said.

Also on Thursday, the FDA released draft guidance for voluntary labeling of salmon and final guidance  for voluntary labeling of products from GMO plants, such as corn, soybeans or sugar.

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The documents include advice on how non-GMO foods should be labeled.

For example, non-GMO statements that would be OK with the agency include: “Not bioengineered;” “Not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology,” and “We do not use ingredients that were produced using modern biotechnology,” and “This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered.”

GMA spokesman Brian Kennedy said the guidance would provide a “more consistent framework” for companies to follow in deciding how to label products. 

The Center for Food Safety petition had argued that the use of biotechnology amounted to a “material” difference that merited mandatory labeling, "if it results in a change to a food at the molecular or genetic level” and a “significant share of consumers would find it relevant to their purchasing decisions.”

The group's senior attorney, George Kimbrell, said it was reviewing its legal options. “FDA has robust authority to require the labeling of GE foods and any decision to the contrary is legally wrong and contrary to good governance and the overwhelming public will."

To see the FDA responses to the different petitioners, click on the name of these groups: Center for Food SafetyTruth in Labeling CoalitionFood and Water Watch (salmon) Earth Justice and others (salmon) .


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