The U.S. House voted Thursday to approve a food labeling act that opponents say will do nothing to help consumers identify which foods contain genetically-modified ingredients.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 would set up a federal standard for voluntary labeling of foods that contain genetically-modified ingredients. The federal standard would be devised by the Food and Drug Administration.
In the last two years, at least 30 states including Colorado have looked at legislation that mandates labeling of genetically-modified organisms. Last November, Colorado voters rejected a ballot measure that would have required such labeling. The measure, Proposition 105, failed by a 2-to-1 margin and was approved in only two out of the state’s 64 counties.
Three states have passed mandatory labeling laws: Vermont, Maine and Connecticut.
The bill approved Thursday by the House would put an end to individual state mandates, according to its sponsor, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-KS. Under HR 1599, the Food and Drug Administration would conduct safety reviews of new plant varieties used for food prior to them being available in the market. The bill also would uphold the FDA’s authority to require specialized labeling if it is deemed necessary for health and safety.
Under the bill, the FDA would establish a standard for use of the word “natural” in food products. Finally, food manufacturers that want to label their foods as “GMO-free” could do so under a U.S. Department of Agriculture certification process.
“We’re seeking a common sense, science-based solution that will protect consumers, facilitate informed consumer choices, as well as guard against a costly, unnecessary and inefficient state-by-state food labeling system,” Pompeo said in March.
The bill is supported by the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association and numerous national agricultural organizations, including wheat, corn and soybean growers. These products are most often cited by anti-GMO groups as laden with GMO ingredients that consumers should be aware of.
Two Colorado Republican congressmen, Reps. Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn, co-sponsored the legislation. Lamborn signed up as a co-sponsor in April; Buck signed onto the bill last week. Both voted in favor of the bill Thursday, as did Reps. Mike Coffman, R-CO and Scott Tipton, R-CO.
Colorado’s three House Democrats all voted against HR 1599. Rep. Jared Polis, D-CO, attempted to amend it to restrict growing of genetically-modified plants on tribal lands. Another amendment, a “strike-below” that sought to replace the language of the entire bill, would have created a non-GMO certification program and label at the Department of Agriculture. Both failed.
Larry Cooper of Right to Know Colorado, which sponsored the 2014 ballot measure, said the House bill “will limit people’s ability to bring forward any type of initiative or language to label the food we are eating.” Corporations like Monsanto will be able to do whatever they want in using pesticides and other chemicals in their products, he explained.
“It’s completely absurd that the American people don’t have a right to know what’s in their food.”
Opponents also point to national polls that show most Americans favor food labeling to identify GMO ingredients. ABC News last month published a poll that said 93 percent of Americans want to know if their food contains GMOs, and 52 percent believe that GMOs are unhealthy.
But supporters point out that the FDA has already said GMO ingredients are safe. And they cheered Thursday’s vote. “Today’s bipartisan passage of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act clearly demonstrates the growing support for this critically important legislation,” according to Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
“A federal approach to food labeling remains the only way to ensure that Americans everywhere can access accurate information about the food they purchase,” Bailey added. “HR 1599 is fact-based, common sense legislation that will provide the kind of clarity and consistency in the marketplace for food labels that American consumers deserve.”
The bill passed on a 275-190 vote, with 230 Republicans and 45 Democrats voting yes, and 12 Republicans and 138 Democrats voting against. A Senate version has not yet been introduced.
Cooper said that President Obama initially supported labeling while he was a candidate. In 2007, then-Sen. Obama told Food Democracy Now he favored GMO labeling. Since then, however, Cooper said the president has accepted donations from big agriculture companies, and has required foreign trade partners to accept U.S. products with GMO ingredients as part of trade negotiations. Obama has not said whether he would sign or veto the bill, which is likely to hit his desk before year’s end.
After passage of the bill Thursday, Buck issued a statement to Colorado farmers. “You won’t have to worry about another extreme interest group coming after the corn that you grow,” he said. “This bill sets up a transparent, accurate, and voluntary labeling system as a national standard. Producers and consumers will be much better served under this system instead of a patchwork of disparate state laws.”
Photo credit: Michael Coghlan, Creative Commons, Flickr.