Federal GM Food-Labeling Law Proposed  

April 16, 2014   

Legislation introduced in the House of Representatives Apr. 9 would provide for a federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling standard to govern foods containing so-called “genetically modified” (GM) ingredients. The bill (H.R. 4432), which is supported by much of the nation’s food industry, would prohibit required labeling of GM foods and would pre-empt such required labeling in state laws.

Activists alleging lax federal regulation of GM foods have sought labeling requirements in more than 25 states through legislation and ballot initiatives but thus far have not been successful anywhere. Public votes in California and Washington on pro-labeling proposals were narrowly defeated after high-cost media campaigns by supporters and opponents. On the federal level the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act to mandate labeling of GM foods has been stuck in committee since introduction a year ago in the House and Senate.

Although “genetic modification” is a term that covers conventional plant breeding, the GM designation is now commonly applied to breeding techniques employing modern biotechnology efficiencies. The FDA currently has the power to order GM labeling if it determines a health or safety risk exists in a GM food but has found no occasion to do so. The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF) notes that the safety of GM foods has been affirmed globally by the World Health Organization and in North America by Health Canada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences.

H.R. 4432, termed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFLA), would require an FDA safety review of new GM traits before commercialization of a variety or product. At present such a review is voluntary. SAFLA provides that the FDA could mandate GM labeling if it determines a GM ingredient is of safety or nutritional concern. Standards would be established for companies that wish to label their products as either containing or not containing GM ingredients. An added provision in SAFLA would authorize the FDA to precisely define the loosely used word “natural” in the marketing of food and beverage products.

Supporters of SAFLA include CFSAF, which lists 35 food-related organizations in its membership, among them the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association. The National Potato Council is still evaluating SAFLA and is developing a policy on GM labeling in light of the complex pros and cons of the issue.

Arguments presented by the CFSAF in favor of SAFLA are that the proposed required FDA review should assure consumers of the safety of the products; FDA labeling standards would be informative to the public; and the confusion and inconsistency of a patchwork of many state laws would be avoided. In addition, costly advocacy campaigns in state labeling public votes would no longer be needed.

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which promotes science-based public policy, noted some concerns about SAFLA. It cited the observation of Dr. Martina Newell-McGloughlin of the University of California, Davis, who directs the UC Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program, that state labeling initiatives are instruments for raising “fear and doubt” about GM foods’ safety and that the activists will never be satisfied until they achieve a “complete ban on biotech products.” Dr. Ruth Kava of ACSH pointed out that the very issue of labeling “perfectly safe” GM products can act as a stimulus for “even more intense pressure over the long term” by the “anti-technology activists.”

Opponents have already dubbed SAFLA the “DARK Act,” an acronym for “Deny Americans the Right to Know” what is in their foods. The Environmental Working Group is urging members to request their Congressional representatives to co-sponsor the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which was sponsored respectively by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

SAFLA’s chief sponsor is Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.). Co-sponsors are Reps. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Ed Whitfield (D-Ky.). 


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