Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) and G. K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina) introduced a revamped “Keeping Food Safe and Affordable Act,” last week, which aims to get out in front of the GMO labeling movement.
This 2015 bill comes with an extra measure that attempts to assuage the groups clamoring for labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.
But the bill’s critics are still calling it the “Dark Act.” The bill was so dubbed last year, when it was first proposed, because it would forbid states from having their own GMO label requirements.
Three states have passed labeling bills (Vermont, Maine and Connecticut), and four states (Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado) have tried, but failed, to initiate labeling via ballot measures. Meanwhile, labeling continues to come up in some state legislatures, where grassroots groups have lobbied for what they see as the right to know how their food is made.
The Pompeo bill would put an end to these nascent state efforts to mandate GMO labels and also constrict the ability of the federal government to mandate a GMO food label.
It would create a system that could lead to labeling in this way: It would require food manufacturers to send a notice to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when they are proposing a GMO food for market. This would trigger the FDA to render an opinion on the safety of that new food and on whether the food is “materially” different from similar non-GMO foods. If the FDA declared the GMO to be OK, the food manufacturer would not be required to have a GMO label.
Since the FDA has rarely met a GMO food of which it disapproved, this is tantamount to saying that the US will not label GMO foods. And that’s why critics have referred to Pompeo’s bill as restricting the public’s right to know. It shuts down or dampens the chances of mandatory labeling for GMOs at both state and federal levels.
The Safe and Affordable Food Act, more than serving as a labeling law, would repress the labeling of GM or GMO foods and Pompeo’s office says that’s the intention.
“Why would we label a food that would indicate to consumers that maybe it is unsafe when all the testing has shown it’s safe?” asked Pompeo’s Director of Communications Heather Denker in an interview after the 2015 bill was proposed.
But the law does provide for labels, when warranted, Denker noted, giving the FDA the authority to require a label if it found some significant issue with the food.
Equipping the FDA with this authority is better than having an array of state laws which would confuse and confound labeling. It would be akin to letting states control air space, she said, calling on a metaphor that Pompeo’s office has used before to explain why it wants to supersede state’s rights in the matter of identifying GMO foods.
That’s Pompeo’s bill in a nutshell. This past week, for the 2015 version, he added a sweetener. The bill now contains a provision that would create a new label, modeled on the Organic certification already offered by the USDA. It directs the USDA to offer food manufacturers as Non-GMO certification. That way companies could market their products as Non-GMO if they wanted to, Denker said. [Footnote]Quick primer: Genetically modified foods are those into which DNA from another organism, like a bacteria or another plant species, has been introduced to change certain characteristics of the food. Most genetically modified organisms have been modified to resist herbicides or insect pests, in the belief that this will raise yields, which it does, until the insects and weeds become resistant to the chemical onslaught. [/Footnote]
So, deconstructed, the Pompeo bill would essentially maintain the status quo. It provides for the FDA to declare that a food is unsafe – an authority it already has — and it gives food manufacturers a way to tout their GMO-free foods via a label, an option that’s already available through the private NonGMO Project.
The NonGMO Project lists dozens of foods that have signed up to be certified as not containing GMOs. You probably already recognize their label.
Those who’ve been pushing for GMO labels – groups like the Center for Food Safety and Just Label It – say the Pompeo plan does not answer their complaint about GMO foods, which they see as fundamentally different from NonGMO foods. They want mandatory labeling for all genetically modified foods, not a voluntary provision for foods that do not contain GMOs.
“Around the world, 64 countries – including the likes of Russia and China – have figured out that labeling foods created in a lab instead of a field is a smart decision,” said Gary Hirshberg, board chairman of Just Label It. “Americans simply want to be afforded the same right – not this thinly veiled proposal that will ultimately provide no new information about how their food was produced.”
“This bill is simply not the solution Americans are looking for,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety. “An overwhelming majority of American consumers want to know if their food has been produced using genetic engineering. That is their right and they will not relent until Congress or the FDA heed their call.”
For people who are not fully engaged in this debate, it might seem like a distinction without a difference.
But to those who’ve been in the trenches, the principle is important. Food companies have an obligation to disclose how their foods are created, explained Pamm Larry, the director of LabelGMOs.org. She said that labeling would not be difficult across states because the states are using the same basic template, so food companies would only need one type of label disclosing GMO ingredients.
”We should have transparency so we can make choices. The thing is without labels, you can’t trace anything,” she said.