GMO Labeling Fight Goes to Washington

Alarmed that pro-GMO labeling advocates may be gaining ground, opponents of GMO labeling took their money and influence to Washington, DC, in December to try to outlaw states from passing GMO labeling bills, and allow manufacturers to call their GMO products “natural.”H.R. 4432, called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 by bill sponsor Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), and backed by corporate agribusiness and mainstream food industry interests, seeks to prohibit states from exercising their right to label GMOs. Further, the bill would allow manufacturers to call GMO foods “natural.” Additionally, Pompeo's legislation, if passed, would create a “voluntary” labeling system over mandatory labeling, and would nullify GMO labeling laws already passed by Maine, Vermont and Connecticut.

GMO Fight in DC

While many in the food industry favor uniform national GMO labeling legislation over a patchwork of state laws, Pompeo’s bill, dubbed the DARK Act, or the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act,” by opponents of the bill, seeks to take the teeth out of GMO labeling. Backers of H.R. 4432 hope to do away with mandatory labeling, while codifying FDA's voluntary labeling system. Currently, FDA does not require labeling for genetically modified foods. However, voluntary labeling has been in place since the mid-1990s, and yet few
to no companies have ever voluntarily labeled their products as containing GMOs.

On December 10, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s health panel held a hearing in Washington, DC, entitled “Examining FDA’s Role in the Regulation of Genetically Modified Ingredients.” Despite a growing body of scientific research pointing to environmental and health risks associated with GMOs, when asked by Congressional panel member George Butterfield (D-NC), “Is there a scintilla of evidence that would suggest that these foods are unsafe?,” FDA official Michael Landa responded, “Not to our knowledge, no.”

Representatives at the hearing were skeptical of the need for GMO labeling, claiming it would confuse consumers or that it was simply “illogical” and “irrational.” Rep. Pompeo claimed that GMO labeling would raise food prices dramatically for consumers.

In testifying at the Congressional hearing, Kate Webb, Assistant Majority Leader in the Vermont House of Representatives, cautioned that H.R. 4432 would ultimately undo the work of Vermont’s recently passed Act 120, the law that requires genetically engineered products sold in Vermont to be labeled as such. Webb was one of the primary sponsors of Act 120, which passed 28-2 in the state Senate and 114-30 in the Vermont House.

“Most people would greatly prefer a national mandatory labeling system and national rules designed to restrict misleading claims of products being ‘natural,’” Webb said at the hearing.

“One of the great strengths of a capitalist democracy is not only do we cast a vote at the polls, we also do so in selecting the products we purchase,” she said. “Transparency allows us to see how things work, be it government, financial institutions or the foods we eat—what is in them, where they come from, and how they are produced. This transparency allows us to make informed decisions, and ultimately build trust.” Webb urged the subcommittee to oppose H.R. 4432 and support the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered products.

Webb and Scott Faber, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group, were the only two witnesses to testify against H.R. 4432. Other witnesses included Michael Landa, Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA; Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, Biotechnology and Genomics Cooperative Extension Specialist, University of California, Davis; Stacey Forshee, Fifth District Director, Kansas Farm Bureau; and Tom Dempsey, President and CEO of the Snack Food Association.

“Poll after poll shows that consumers want the right to know what’s in their food and how it’s produced,” said Scott Faber. “Because our food choices have such a significant impact on our lives, this is a trend that should be welcomed, not frustrated. So it’s disappointing that some members of Congress, led by Rep. Mike Pompeo, are fighting to deny Americans the right to know whether their food contains genetically modified ingredients.”