The labeling of GMO food products was the topic of a June 18 House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health. Spurred by the recent passage of a Vermont law mandating such labels by July 2016, lawmakers and witnesses discussed a bipartisan bill (H.R. 1599) that would provide a single framework for such labels nationwide.
Some 400 food and agriculture companies are reportedly supporting the legislation that would, said Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, ensure “that every new GE plant destined for the nation's food supply goes through FDA's safety review.”
“The proposed genetic engineering certification and labeling system proposed by H.R. 1599 … would be a good step forward,” said Gregory Jaffe, Biotechnology Project Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “It would require USDA to establish a non-GMO labeling system with uniform definitions and verified label claims. While CSPI believes there is no benefit to consumers from avoiding foods that contain ingredients from GE crops, CSPI understands that some consumers do want to buy such foods. The system that would be implemented at USDA if Congress passed H.R. 1599 would go a long way toward uniform labels with verifiable, non-misleading claims.”
Other witnesses pointed to problems with the Vermont law and the potential for other states, or even municipalities, to pass labeling requirements of their own.
“The benefits biotechnology provides to producers, to the environment, and to consumers are substantial,” said John Reifsteck, President GROWMARK, an Illinois-based agricultural cooperative. “To reverse course now would wreak havoc among America’s agriculture industry, adversely affecting many farmers and ranchers.
“Yet that is exactly what a patchwork of biotech labeling laws at the state level would likely do. In short, such a hodgepodge of rules would be unworkable for farmers and their cooperatives. A growing concern among farmers and co-op managers is that this patchwork would not stop at the state-level but could extend down to individual cities, counties, and townships.”
Rick Blasgen, CEO of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, said grocers and manufacturers face a compliance nightmare due to the Vermont law. “Because grocery manufacturing is a high-volume, low-margin business, any marginal increase in cost per unit -- even by a matter of cents -- can substantially affect a manufacturer's operations and bottom line.
“It is my opinion that very few, if any, large manufacturers in the United States will be able to ensure compliance by (the July 2016) deadline.”
Pushing back, Todd Daloz, Vermont assistant attorney general, said the will of the people of Vermont must be inviolable and the law passed only after significant fact-finding and debate over two years. “One of the primary roles of states in our federal system is to act, to paraphrase Justice Brandeis, as laboratories of democracy to develop ‘novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.’
“That is what Vermont has done in requiring the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. Our primary concern with the draft legislation before you today is that it would prematurely end all state efforts to require labeling -- before Vermont’s labeling law even takes effect -- without offering a substantive federal requirement in its place.
“Vermonters, reflecting consumers across the United States, overwhelmingly support the factual disclosure that food has been produced using genetic engineering.”
Backing the House bill, New York Rep. Chris Collins did the legislation no favors by comparing it to fracking. “The opponents (GMOs) – like those (opposed to) hydro-fracking – basically say ‘GMO equals bad, GMO equals dangerous.’ People are at a point where, if they put anything GMO on their label, the average consumer, due to misinformation and disinformation, will say ‘I don’t want to buy that.’ Well, that’s a tragedy for America, for the American consumer.
“Also, I know that if every state, every town in every county – all 62 counties in New York – create their own labeling standard the types of costs passed on to consumers would be mind-boggling…
“We’re asking the FDA to do a study on safety (of GMOs), like we did with the EPA doing a study on the safety of hydro-fracking – and it came back safe. I’m confident the same will be the case with GMOs.”
A Cornell study, said Collins, concluded the annual cost of GMO labeling to a family would be $500. “$500 is a significant debt for getting nothing.”
Following the hearing, commodity groups weighed in. “The current situation of individual states having unique labeling requirements is not workable or sustainable,” said Brett Blankenship, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. “NAWG supports facilitating interstate commerce by having a common labeling rule set by Congress. We are pleased the bill is receiving bipartisan support.”