(USA Today) WASHINGTON — A bill introduced Wednesday would put the federal government in charge of overseeing the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients, preventing states from enacting their own requirements to regulate the controversial ingredients.
The legislation, known as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, would require the Food and Drug Administration to review the safety of a product before it enters the marketplace, putting into law a process that is currently voluntary but widely used by food companies. The health agency would require mandatory labeling on food with genetically modified ingredients if they are found to be unsafe or materially different from foods produced without biotech ingredients. Manufacturers could still label their foods as being made without these specially engineered crops.
This bill "prevents a mishmash of labeling standards and allows farmers to continue to produce higher yields of healthy crops in smaller spaces with less water and fewer pesticides," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., who drafted the measure along with Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican. "If passed, this will be a big win for farmers nationwide."
But consumer groups vowed to fight the legislation, which they see as an attempt to undermine efforts to pass state ballot initiatives mandating labeling of most products with genetically modified ingredients.
In the United States, up to 80% of packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents more than 300 food and beverage companies including Kellogg, PepsiCo and H.J. Heinz.
Agricultural and food producers praised the legislation and said it would provide certainty to their members by establishing a uniform set of food labeling guidelines.
"This bill is a commonsense, science-based approach to an issue we realize is close to the hearts and minds of so many consumers," said Ray Gaesser, an Iowa farmer and president of the American Soybean Association. "Americans want to know that their food is safe, and the solutions proposed in this bill will ensure that they have that information."
Food and biotechnology companies point to studies from the FDA, the National Academy of Sciences and other regulatory and scientific bodies showing the foods are safe.
The grocers group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), among others, have opposed allowing each state to write its own labeling law. They worry states could impose different requirements on farmers and food companies, saddling them with higher costs that get passed on to consumers. They also argue that mandatory labeling would suggest to the public that foods with biotech ingredients are unsafe to eat. Nearly two dozen states are working on legislation to require genetically modified foods to be labeled.
Millions of dollars have already been spent by supporters and opponents of biotech crops on ballot initiatives in California and Washington state that would require product labeling. While both of the measures narrowly failed, mandates have passed in Connecticut and Maine even though they require other states to pass a similar measure before the laws go into effect.
Consumer advocacy groups have aggressively pushed the public's right to know what is in food, raised concerns about the potential damage to the environment and questioned the long-term impact of consuming products with biotech crops in them. Scott Faber, a senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said the vast majority of Americans want to know if they are eating foods with genetically engineered foods.
Faber and other consumer groups said the legislation is a desperate effort to stop the momentum created by more states moving toward requiring labeling. Opponents said the bill's fate was uncertain in the House and unlikely to gain enough support in the Senate.
"(This bill) will add more fuel to the fire, more people will now be alerted to the fact that some legislators ... are working to deny them the right to know something they badly want to know," Faber said. "GMA and BIO have enormous resources that they will deploy and we will do everything we can block this bill from ever moving forward."