House members debate need for national GMO labeling standards

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 11, 2014 - A House subcommittee on Wednesday debated the role of the Food and Drug Administration in the regulation of food containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. Many legislators said they want to see one national set of standards for GE labeling and are worried about the “patchwork” of state rules that may develop.

The Energy and Commerce health subcommittee convened for a broad discussion on crops produced using biotechnology, sometimes referred to as GE crops or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The discussion ranged from individual state GMO labeling laws to H.R. 4432, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

That act - authored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C. - would task FDA with reviewing all foods containing GMO ingredients to determine if they were safe. Among other things, the bill would also preempt state GMO labeling laws, which Butterfield - and many other lawmakers - said is a necessary step in this debate.

Lets Talk Food

“I'm wrong from time to time, but I can't see how that would ever work, even in California,” Butterfield said, simultaneously taking a shot at the famously liberal state - which has defeated GMO labeling in the past - and arguing that one federal solution to GMO labeling would work better than 50 state solutions.

The legislation is supported by many state and national farm groups, including heavy hitters like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association. John Linder, trade policy and biotechnology chair with NCGA, said the organization supports the bill and looks forward “to working with lawmakers in the new Congress to advance this important piece of legislation.”

There was very little dissention among the members of the subcommittee that tackling GMO labeling federally rather than state-by-state is a good idea. The dissention on labeling arose when discussing the reasoning for doing so and which products should bear the additional marking. Tom Dempsey, president and CEO of the Snack Food Association, said that products with GE ingredients are so numerous, the current policy of labeling organic products as such should reign supreme rather than labeling “the balance” of products, as he called it.

“It seems to me that forcing a mandatory labeling law on products that are the predominant ones on the supermarket shelf goes against common sense,” Dempsey said, reiterating a point that was made several times during the three-hour hearing. Those in favor of labeling foods with GE ingredients said it had more to do with the consumers right to know what was in the food they were buying.

At one point, Pompeo, who is not a subcommittee member but was allowed to take part in the hearing, asked a panel of five witnesses - Alison Van Eenennaam with University of California-Davis, Scott Faber with the Environmental Working Group, Kansas Farm Bureau's Stacy Forshee, Vermont House of Representatives Assistant Majority Leader Kate Webb, and Dempsey - if they thought GMO ingredients were safe. All five witnesses said yes, as did Michael Landa, FDA director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, who testified on a previous panel. Not one lawmaker on the subcommittee stated clear opposition to the inclusion of GE crops in food supply.

“Mandatory labeling could lead consumers to believe that if the government is requiring a GE label, it must mean that GE foods are riskier or somehow fundamentally different from non-GE foods, and to date, scientists have concluded that they are not,” Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said in his opening statement, adding that he was concerned mandatory labeling “could be inherently misleading.” However, he said he supports allowing states to make their own laws about the issue.

Several witnesses and legislators on both sides of the aisle said that a better definition of “natural” foods - which can contain GMO ingredients under current regulations - is just one reason that food labeling should be improved, despite no known safety risks with GMO ingredients. Faber, who serves as EWG's senior vice president of government affairs, said regulations and labels that attempt to clarify such things contribute to a confused consumer.

“If we lived in a world where consumers perfectly understood what natural, non-GMO, organic, and other claims meant, a voluntary (labeling) system might make sense; we don't live in that world,” Faber said. “We live in a world where consumers are extraordinarily confused about what they're buying at the point of sale.”

Pompeo's bill would direct FDA to better define “natural” foods within two years of the bill's enactment. Landa said the natural foods issue is not a new one, but is still very complex.

“The agency embarked on an effort to define ‘natural' years ago. That did not result in a codified definition,” Landa said. “We've been asked on many occasions to develop a definition.”

Pompeo said he hasn't received a commitment or timeline from leadership on his bill's chances next year, but he is hopeful to see the bill in committee markup in March or April. 

“I think folks who stare at this and get a chance to really see where the science is, what this means to the average consumer if we don't get it done, often come to the conclusion that what we're trying to do makes sense,” Pompeo told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “I didn't see anything (in the hearing) today that causes me to believe that we can't go figure out a way to get 275 or 300 plus votes in the House and the same kinds of majorities in the Senate. I think folks from all across America are going to demand that Congress act to prevent an enormous spike in food costs if we don't get this done.”

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