As more US states require labeling of foods made with GMO ingredients, Congress could be pressured to establish uniform, nationwide law regulating GMOs found in much of the US food supply as early as next year, officials say
July 17, 2014
(Gannett Co. Inc.)
– As more states require labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients, Congress could be pressured to establish a uniform, nationwide law regulating the controversial technology found in much of the U.S. food supply as early as next year.
The debate over whether to label salad dressings, soups, cereals and other grocery store staples made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, gained momentum in May after Vermont became the first state to require labeling of foods made from those ingredients. The measure, which is being challenged in court by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other groups, is set to take effect July 1, 2016.
The labeling argument has pitted consumer groups against major food and agribusiness companies who agree that labeling of genetically engineered foods should take place, but the two sides have failed to reach a consensus on how to get there and whether it should be mandatory or voluntary. The food industry has said a state-by-state framework leads them to face higher costs that get passed on to shoppers, while opponents of the ingredients contend state laws are needed to address growing consumer demand about what is in their food until the federal government acts.
State efforts have had mixed results. Voters in California and Washington state narrowly failed to approve similar initiatives. Connecticut and Maine both passed laws to require labeling, but they go into effect only if nearby states act.
Oregon voters will decide on a labeling initiative in November, and more than two dozen other states - including Colorado, New York and Massachusetts - are considering mandatory labeling. In Iowa, where many view labeling as an attack on the state's agriculture industry, some lawmakers considered a proposal in 2013, but it failed to gain enough support.
Congress has taken a largely hands-off approach about whether large food companies should be required to notify consumers about these ingredients. Unless further pressure builds on the state level through the passage of new labeling laws, Washington lawmakers will likely seek to distance themselves from the labeling debate. The earliest Congress could act is 2015, food groups and labeling proponents say.
"As states come out with their own different regulations it makes (the marketplace) more and more complicated and we may see more people from across the country asking for us to take some action. Maybe that's what the standstill is right now," said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., a member of the House Agriculture Committee. "There's not a real desire for Congress to step in and deal with this issue until the people across the states tell us it's necessary."
Pro-labeling advocates say most Americans support labeling and they contend momentum is building for Congress to act. They say U.S. shoppers should be given the same opportunity that consumers in more than 60 countries have to know if the foods they buy contain those ingredients. They also have expressed uncertainty about the safety of genetically modified ingredients, even though the Food and Drug Administration has said there is no difference between genetically modified crops and their traditional counterparts.
In the United States, up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food and beverage companies, including Kellogg, PepsiCo and H.J. Heinz.
The glacial pace toward a nationwide law, food advocacy groups say, is similar in many ways to the posting of calorie counts at chain restaurants. Cities and states stepped in before a national policy was established as part of the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act. The FDA has not issued regulations that would enforce menu labeling nationwide.
"We're in the midst of an area of food democracy, the likes of which we've never seen. People want to know everything about their food, what's in it, who made it, where it's from, how it's made," said Scott Faber, a vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. "The politicians who are trying to deny people the right to know about their food are running headlong into this sort of a brick wall of opposition."
In Washington, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio D-Ore., have proposed a nationwide label on genetically modified foods. Food and agribusiness companies, (AT)including Monsanto and DuPont, have thrown their weight behind a bill from Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., that would ban mandatory GMO food labeling by states and let food companies decide if they want to label their packages as genetically modified. Those bills have languished in Congress.
"It seems to me that a federal law ought to be passed if we're going to have a continuing number of states voting" for labeling, said Sen. Chuck Grassley. The Iowa Republican does not support states requiring individual labels for GMOs unless science shows the technology is unsafe.
Food manufacturers and producers of genetically modified corn, soybeans and other crops have spent millions of dollars to oppose mandatory labeling. They say the crops have been proven to be safe, and mandatory labels would mislead consumers that the ingredients are less nutritious or unsafe.
While the FDA is not required to approve genetically engineered crops for human consumption, most companies voluntary submit them to the agency for a safety review before putting them in food products.
Cathleen Enright, an executive vice president of food and agriculture with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said a federal solution is needed to prevent an uneven patchwork of labeling requirements that vary from state to state, increasing costs for food manufacturers that are passed on to shoppers. She said the challenge is finding one that is fair and doesn't malign a widely used technology or scare consumers.
"It's interesting how motivations align because the proponents of mandatory labeling at the state level all along have been clear that their goal was to create this mosaic of bills and essentially chaos in interstate commerce to press the federal government to act," Enright said. "We support the need for the federal government to act. It all comes down to the federal level."
In the meantime, some U.S. food companies are avoiding genetically modified ingredients in their products, and letting consumers know.
Whole Foods will require labeling of all products sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018 to indicate if they contain genetically modified ingredients. General Mills said in January it would stop using bioengineered corn starch and sugar cane for its original Cheerios and put on the boxes "Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients." And ice cream icon Ben & Jerry's is in the process of shifting to non-genetically modified ingredients in all of its 50 flavors.
Ben & Jerry's home state of Vermont could play a pivotal role in determining the appetite for state labeling initiatives. If the court strikes down the law, it could chill other states from considering their own labeling laws, and further delay action in Washington, GMO supporters say.
EWG's Faber said Vermont is within the law to require GMO labeling to alleviate confusion among consumers over the ingredients that are in the foods they eat. "This (lawsuit) is a last-ditch, hail Mary, fingers-crossed effort by the industry to try to block what is really the inevitable, mandatory national GMO labeling," said Faber.
Greg Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said there is a growing need to share more about genetically modified crops. But he said the players involved are divided over whether food manufacturers and retailers, the states or the federal government should be responsible for getting that information to consumers, and how.
"I don't see this issue going away anytime soon," said Jaffe. "There needs to be some additional transparency and access to information (for the consumer) but in what form that comes in is very much open."
Contact Christopher Doering, Gannett Washington Bureau at cdoering(AT)gannett.com
(c) 2014 (C) Gannett News Service