GMO Labeling Bill Moves in Congress

July 22, 2015    

H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (SAFLA), has passed the House Agriculture Committee in Congress and is expected to be taken up by the full House Thursday, July 23.

SAFLA gives the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) full authority over special labeling of food products containing “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs). The GMO designation is commonly applied to ingredients developed through biotechnology methods rather than the conventional breeding that employs plant crosses and selections. SAFLA would pre-empt states from implementing their own GMO labeling mandates. So far the national movement for state-level GMO labeling has met with defeat in California and Washington but has been successful in Maine, Vermont and Connecticut.

The bipartisan SAFLA bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) and Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina). It has received 373 letters of support from businesses and agricultural organizations including the National Potato Council and the Snack Food Association.

SAFLA’s opponents include anti-GMO activists who allege the technology creates unsafe foods and advocate state labeling mandates in the name of consumers’ “right to know.” Another camp fears that GMO labeling in itself fans unjustified alarms despite safety endorsements by numerous national and international scientific and regulatory bodies including the World Health Organization. The media effectiveness of anti-GMO forces is illustrated by a Pew Research Center poll released July 1 on whether genetically modified foods are safe to eat An affirmative response came from 88% of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science but only 37% of adults from the general public.

The GMO issue is muddled by activists’ broad-brush lumping of all GMOs into a single category that they claim deserves opposition. The biotechnology enables transgenic GMOs, in which genes from outside a species are incorporated into a plant. But it also creates “cisgenic” plants that add genetic material from the same species. The latter technique is a modern improvement over the tedious traditional crosses and plant selections that result in an overwhelming proportion of failures. The potato industry is interested in cisgenic plant breeding because it promises that improved traits, such as resistance to diseases and stress factors, can be put into new varieties much more efficiently than by old-fashioned techniques. Yet the resulting varieties can still be called GMOs and stir activists to strident attack.

SAFLA puts the FDA in the position of assuring safety by requiring the agency to conduct safety reviews of all new plant varieties qualifying as GMOs before they can enter commercial channels. Thus if a breeding program produces a potato variety with late-blight resistance through biotech genetic procedures, the new variety would not be available to growers until first receiving FDA approval.

The FDA would also be authorized to require special labeling when necessary to protect safety and health. It would also oversee a new legal framework governing label claims about the presence or absence of GMO ingredients. Another SAFLA provision is for a federal definition of “natural” as applied on food labels since the term is now used loosely.

Food manufacturers can currently use a private “verification” system to label their products as “non-GMO.” SAFLA would establish an accredited certification process through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for companies wishing to adopt a GMO-free label.

A major purpose of the legislation is to prevent an uncoordinated and potentially chaotic regulatory system operating at the level of the states. When SAFLA was introduced Mar. 25, the co-sponsor Rep. Butterfield stated in a press release, “The potential for a 50-state patchwork of varying labeling standards would increase costs for producers and translate into higher prices for consumers to the tune of more than $500 per year for the average family. This bill will provide clear rules for producers and certainty for consumers at the grocery store checkout lane.”

The Weekly Potato Report 

In Other News: Field Day 2.0 & 2015 Potato Outreach Program