WASHINGTON, April 11, 2012 -Several large organic food marketers and anti-biotech activists want the Obama Administration to reverse a 20-year policy of opposing mandatory labeling of genetically modified food. They are ramping up political pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to approve their petition to require food labels to disclose ingredients produced with biotechnology, claiming that more than 1 million consumers have signed petitions and form letters backing the proposal.

The petition was filed in October by the Center for Food Safety and manufacturers such as Horizon Organic, owned by Dean Foods; Stonyfield Farms, the organic yogurt subsidiary of France’s Groupe Danone; Annie’s Homegrown, organic pasta maker; the Organic Valley dairy and egg cooperative in Wisconsin, and the Organic Trade Association. Nationally known advocacy groups on the petition include Beyond Pesticides, Consumers Union, the Environmental Working Group, Food and Water Watch and the National Family Farm Coalition.

The “Just Label It” organization, which coordinated the effort to gather signatures, says FDA has made no decision, but hopes to complete the review and have an answer “in the near future.” The petition seeks what its backers have failed to get through legislation for the last several years and have sought or are seeking in state legislatures and ballot initiatives. Bills to mandate biotech labels have been introduced in Congress but never seriously considered over the last decade. The Organic Consumers Association says similar bills have been offered in 19 state legislatures.

Following a costly advertising campaign in 2002, Oregon voters rejected a mandatory biotech labeling initiative by a 70-30 margin. A campaign is under way in California to collect signatures to put a similar initiative on the ballot in November. The Organic Consumers Association says it needs 504,760 qualifying signatures by April 22 and hopes to collect 800,000 “to make sure we have enough valid signatures” to get on the ballot. The Council for Biotechnology Information and the Grocery Manufacturers Association are leading a coalition that opposes the initiative.

Any FDA decision to require food labels to show biotech ingredients would fly in the face of the 1992 interagency policy determination that relies on the characteristics of food, not the method used to develop it. It holds that biotech food that is “substantially equivalent” – with the same chemical composition and nutritional value – to its conventional counterparts need not have a special label. The Biotechnology Industry Organization interprets the FDA stance to mean that such labels would mislead consumers “by falsely implying differences where none exist.”

Since articulation of the labeling policy in the coordinated framework for biotech regulation developed during the first Bush Administration in May 1992, U.S. negotiators have consistently resisted efforts – usually led by the European Union – to impose biotech labels in Codex and other international venues. That view was reiterated last week by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in its report on sanitary and phytosanitary barriers. It says the U.S. will “continue to raise trade-related concerns” about other countries’ food label requirements that are “based on the manner in which food is produced, rather than on scientific principles.” Stringent label mandates, it argues, go beyond Codex guidance that “foods derived from modern biotechnology are not necessarily different from other foods simply as a result of the way they are produced.”

The USTR characterization is “consistent with statements in congressional hearings that Commissioner (Margaret) Hamburg made last month,” says Cathleen Enright, BIO’s executive vice president for food and agriculture. “They have stood by that since 1992. Given the safe use history of genetically engineered food, there continues to be no scientific justification for mandatory labeling.” The policy infers that government lacks “the right to force producers to put labels on food products based on issues unrelated to health and safety,” she said. 

“We don’t see this as an issue simply about labeling,” Enright says. “What the proponents of the labeling petition are asking seems simple, but their intent is not merely to have food labeling. We believe their intent is to actually reverse U.S. policies with regard to biotechnology.” Noting that the same groups regularly sue USDA to block approval of biotech foods, she sees the petition as but one tactic in a “multi-track approach to reverse policies they oppose.”

GMA said, in an email statement, that labeling of biotech food ingredients is “misguided and unnecessary.” Under current FDA and USDA labeling regulations, the group says, “if a genetically engineered ingredient did somehow change the nutritional composition of a food product, that change would be indicated on the food label.” GMA member organizations also have held that labeling for every biotech ingredient could be incredibly costly.

Monsanto’s argument is even more direct. “Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence,” says a statement posted on its Web site in January. “Ensuring that such labeling is accurate would also put a huge burden on regulatory agencies.”


Original story printed in April 11th, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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