WASHINGTON, March 25, 2015 – The House Agriculture Committee hosted a panel Tuesday that included food manufacturers and farmers who criticized state-by-state laws that mandate labels on foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and supported legislation that would create a voluntary, national labeling system.   

Chris Policinski, CEO of Land O’Lakes, expressed his support for a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., last year that would create “a voluntary, uniform, national solution.” A revised bill aimed at blocking state-by-state GMO labeling laws is expected to be introduced in the House today. A draft copy of the bill, which was obtained by Agri-Pulse, would set up a certification process run by USDA for foods labeled as non-GMO and define the term “natural.”

At the hearing, Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, noted that 26 states have some form of GMO labeling legislation pending or, like Vermont, already enacted. “These proposals are loaded with arbitrary and inconsistent policies which would create an unmanageable situation for food producers, processors and distributers,” he said.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said although he typically advocates for states’ rights, “this is one issue where without a uniform standard, there will be increased costs to the average American citizen.”

The panel’s ranking member, Collin Peterson, D-Minn., agreed that every state enacting its own labeling law is unworkable. “But when it comes to labeling we need to be able to find a smart way to balance this consumer demand with what we know about the safety of the foods that our farmers produce,” he said. “If done correctly I think we can find a workable solution.”

Under the revised labeling bill, the Food and Drug Administration would be in charge of a premarket notification process for new biotech crops, but USDA would regulate non-GMO labeling. This would allow the Agriculture Committee to share jurisdiction over the bill with Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight for FDA, and primary jurisdiction over the proposed legislation.

Nina Federoff, senior science adviser at OFW Law and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, testified to the “impeccable safety record” of genetically engineered crops in food.  “Despite anecdotal reports, often never published or subsequently retracted, no allergies, illnesses or deaths have been reproducibly linked to the consumption of GM food or feed,” she told the lawmakers.

Federoff acknowledged that “more than 60 percent of Americans think GMOs are unsafe,” and then asked why. “The reasons lie in increasingly strident efforts of determined anti-GMO activists to convince the public that GMOs are bad,” she said.

David Schmidt, CEO of the International Food Information Council, testified about a survey of consumer attitudes on biotechnology that used open-ended questions without referring to genetically engineered food as “GMOs” When people were asked if they were avoiding any particular foods or ingredients in their diet, only 2 percent of respondents mentioned biotech food or GMOs, he said.

Additionally, 63 percent of respondents supported the current FDA policy, which only mandates labels for information important to nutrition, health and safety. “The food label is not a playground for every bit of information someone might want to know,” Schmidt said.

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., brought up the economic issues related to mandatory labeling. “Just how critical is the need for the federal government to intervene here with a national standard rather than a state-by-state approach? What is that economic impact?” he asked the panelists.

Thomas Dempsey, CEO of the Snack Food Association, said the organization does not have a single member company that manufactures, distributes and sells in just one state, “making a state labeling law incredibly complex to deal with.” Dempsey said the small companies that have just one plant or a single line of production will be hardest hit by mandatory labeling laws, which would increase consolidation in the industry “to a few multi-category, multinational players that can better take on the added cost of sourcing and segregation GMO and non-GMO crops.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., criticized the homogeneity of the panel’s opinions, adding that “we ought to hear from the other side of the debate.” He said consumers want transparency in the market due to “great confusion with the labeling system,” noting that many people don’t know that “natural” does not indicate a non-GMO product or that “organic” does mean non-GMO.

McGovern also brought up a recent International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announcement that categorizes the herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” to humans. He said he is “deeply concerned” that glyphosate is used on millions of acres of genetically engineered crops, adding, “that may be something people want to know” in their food labels.

Federoff responded that the IARC review is “not based on any new data” and many studies over the years, including those reviewed by regulatory agencies like the EPA, have failed to identify any carcinogenic effect of glyphosate. “So for one group to say it might be…and we put that on a label? This doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

In a media call about the IARC review, Monsanto’s vice president of global regulatory affairs, Phil Miller, said IARC should retract its statement and “actually justify how they’ve come to a conclusion that differs so vastly” from the conclusions of scientific and regulatory bodies like the EPA, which uses “the same information to come to the conclusion that glyphosate is safe for the environment and human health.”

In a press call shortly after the House Ag Committee hearing, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) discussed its support of a mandatory national GMO labeling law, rather than a voluntary measure that would preempt state labeling.

“The proper course of action is federal labeling of all GE (genetically engineered) foods,” said EWG President Ken Cook. He asserted that more than 90 percent of Americans support GMO labeling and more than 60 countries already require labeling, including Russia and China.

Voluntary labeling efforts would not serve consumers, emphasized Gary Hirshberg, with the “Just Label It” campaign. He described efforts by food companies to support Rep. Pompeo’s bill as “economic tyranny.”

The Pompeo bill makes it “look like sponsors support transparency, but would actually suppress it,” Hirshberg said. “Americans simply want the same rights that Russians have.”

Scott Faber, with EWG and the Executive Director of “Just Label It” cited President Obama’s support in 2007 of GMO labeling and said the White House has “the smoking gun they need to give consumers a right to know” and ultimately require mandatory labeling.

Asked if they would support exemptions from GMO labeling for alcohol, animal feeds or other products that have been exempted from most state labeling proposals, Faber said the “Just Label It” campaign would work to “craft a solution that works for industry and works for consumers.”

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