A bill floated in Congress last week would override state efforts to create labeling standards for foods containing genetically modified or genetically engineered ingredients.
The "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act", introduced by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-KS and G.K. Butterfield, D-NC is seen by many as a way to pre-empt state efforts to require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs.) Others praised the bill, saying it will give federal control to an important food issue.
Watchdog groups said there are currently 66 active bills or ballot initiatives in 27 states aimed at labeling genetically engineered foods.
Pompeo's bill (H.R. 4432) would prohibit any mandatory labeling on foods with genetically engineered crop ingredients.
Other representatives who signed on as sponsors include Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Jim Matheson (D-UT) and Ed Whitfield (R-KY.)
In introducing the measure April 9, Pompeo said the bill was intended to head off a patchwork of state regulations, which would make it difficult to operate the U.S. food system, adding that some of the campaigns for labeling in various states are intended to scare consumers rather than inform them.
Pompeo said he believes GMOs are safe and equally healthy so no labeling should be needed.
In California in 2012 and Washington state in 2013 there were ballot initiatives that lost by narrow voter margins after biotech companies spent money in the campaign to defeat the referenda.
Farm groups took differing views on the Pompeo measure.
"Surveys have consistently shown that consumers want more information about their food, not less. The prevalence of state-led efforts to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs) only corroborates these findings," said National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson on Friday (April 11.)
Pompeo's bill, which is expected to get a hearing in Congress this summer, would amend the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. One provision in the bill would require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to write regulations to specify a maximum permissible level of GMO material in foods that bear non-GMO labels.
Connecticut has already passed a measure prohibiting the labeling of foods as "natural" if they contain GMO ingredients. Pompeo's measure would prohibit such state laws.
The bill would also limit the FDA's authority to force food companies to disclose if they are using GMO ingredients.
National Farmers Union came out in opposition to the measure, based on members' policy statements.
"Farmers Union members have clearly stated their position in the policy adopted at our annual meeting in favor of required consumer labeling for foods made from or containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs)," Johnson said.
"The rights of both GMO and non-GMO producers should be respected as appropriate regulatory agencies continue to research and evaluate ethical, environmental, food safety, legal, market and structural issues that impact everyone in the food chain."
The National Farmers Union supports "conspicuous, mandatory labeling for food products throughout the processing chain to include all ingredients, additives and processes, such as genetically altered or engineered food products," Johnson added.
The organization also opposes the measure because it would pre-empt state actions to label foods containing GM ingredients. "In numerous places, NFU's member-driven policy supports the authority of lower levels of government and opposes pre-emption by federal standards."
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, remarked that his organization represents farmers who use every type of agricultural production system.
His members "are encouraged by the bipartisan leadership" involved in the introduction of H.R. 4432, he said in a statement on the bill.
"This measure will make it clear that the FDA should be the nation's foremost authority on the use and labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients," Stallman said.
"Farm Bureau supports all production practices — and common sense, science-based regulations — that ensure consumers are receiving safe and healthy food. But we will stand adamantly opposed to those who want to take tools and technologies away from America's farmers and affordable choices away from consumers."
Stallman said the GMO labeling ballot initiatives and legislative efforts in various states "are geared toward making people wrongly fear what they're eating and feeding their children.
"They undermine the public's understanding of the many benefits of biotechnology in feeding a growing population — and keeping costs down."
Stallman said that with the introduction of Pompeo's legislation and the leadership of the bill's sponsors, Farm Bureau looks forward to a "national-level discussion" that will affirm FDA's role in assuring consumers about GMO safety and "reduce the confusion that would result from a patchwork of state labeling initiatives."
The National Milk Producers Federation praised the introduction of what it called the "voluntary GMO labeling law," saying it applauded legislation that would establish federal standards for the safety and labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients (GMOs).
Pompeo's idea to establish federal standards for companies that wish to label their products as containing or not containing GMOs and requiring the FDA to conduct a safety review of all new genetically modified traits is a better idea than letting states do it, the dairy group said.
"Rather than create a patchwork of state policies, what this legislation would do is deal with this important issue at the national level," said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of NMPF.
"And since there is no reason for Congress and the FDA to require mandatory labels on foods produced through GMOs, we need this approach instead -- clarifying how companies can voluntarily label their products in a way that reduces confusion at the consumer level."
Mulhern added that "genetically modified ingredients have been used in foods in this country for two decades. They add desirable traits so that crops are more plentiful and require less water and fewer pesticides.
"If companies want to highlight their presence, they should be able to do so in a way that enhances trust in the food supply."
The new labeling legislation also addresses another problem by ordering the FDA to define the term "natural" when used on food labels; right now, there is no uniform definition of "natural" when applied to foods, Mulhern said.
Up to 80 percent of the food available in the United States contains genetically modified ingredients, he added. Agencies including the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization have found no negative health effects from consuming GMOs.
The Environmental Working Group's Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs, Scott Faber said more than 90 percent of Americans support labeling of genetically engineered food.
"It's clear the public wants to know what's in their food, but if Rep. Pompeo has his way, no one will have that right," Faber said.
"Consumers in 64 countries — including China and Saudi Arabia — have the right to know if their food contains GMOs," said Faber. "Why shouldn't Americans have the same right?
Marni Karlin, director of legislative and legal affairs for the Organic Trade Association, said the bill ignores consumer's demand for information and ties the hands of state governments, the USDA and the FDA concerning GMO labeling.
The Center for Food Safety said it had filed a legal petition with the FDA laying out a plan for federal labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients. According to a press release from the group the agency has received 14 million comments in support of the petition but has not responded.
Biotech companies have generally opposed any labeling laws, maintaining that there are no scientific differences between genetically modified foods and others, and no data to say they are any less safe.