The question of whether to require labels on food with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) pits activists and consumers who favor the labels against big agribusinesses and farmers who generally don’t. An estimated 80 percent of food eaten in the U.S. now contains GMOs. About half of the 169 million acres of U.S. crop land grew genetically engineered crops in 2013, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. GMOs are in most cereals, frozen foods, meat, milk, canned soup and even baby formula. About half of the states in the U.S. are now considering labeling laws. To avoid the problems inherent in a patchwork of different labeling regulations for different states, two bills have been introduced into Congress to provide federal regulation of labeling.
The House Sponsored GMO Food Labeling Bill
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) introduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 last week with lead co-sponsor Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). The bill would create a voluntary federal labeling standard, while pre-empting states from passing their own mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified—or GMO—foods. With 20 co-sponsors—12 Republicans and eight Democrats, including Butterfield—backers of the proposal appear to be gaining momentum and say they are confident the GOP-controlled Congress will approve the bill. While there is not yet legislation in the Senate, Pompeo said the measure has a path forward after years of debate over whether and how Congress should address concerns about the increased role of biotechnology in growing crops.
Labeling of GMO foods is not new. Both Europe and China require labeling of these products. Opponents of the bill before Congress claim it will raise food costs, threaten food secuurity and create confusion among consumers about the safety of GMO foods. They assert that there is no scientific evidence to support the claim by anti-GMO activists that these foods pose a danger to heath. In fact, they say, we have been eating GMO foods for millennia since conventional animal and plant breeding constitute a form of genetic modification.
Food safety advocates, on the other hand, say lawmakers will ultimately balk at the bill once they discover its implications. “Members of Congress are really looking for a federal solution here,” said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety. “I think we’re going to get to that rubber meets the road point where members realize they are being sold on a bill that doesn’t solve anything consumers are asking for, which is a mandatory labeling standard.”
Opponents fear the sway—and vast resources—of the bill’s industry backers. Groups representing major agriculture and biotechnology interests have poured millions of dollars into battles over state proposals to create mandatory labeling laws. The bill is an effort to block all of those efforts in a single stroke, said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. Faber said the Pompeo-Butterfield bill would narrow the circumstances for when FDA can require disclosures down to health and safety concerns. The agency can now require a label merely to help consumers make more informed choices.
The Senate Version of a GMO Labeling Bill
The groups instead are pushing Congress to pass the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, introduced in the Senate earlier this month by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and in the House by Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). Their bill would require labels for all foods produced using genetically engineering ingredients and prohibit manufacturers from labeling genetically modified foods as natural.
A Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 1,000 adults last year found that 92 percent of Americans want genetically modified foods to be labeled. To date, the FDA has not found any health risks associated with GMOs and the current agency policy does not consider the inclusion of GMO ingredients in a product as information that must be disclosed.
Consumers and the FDA Weigh In
FDA Spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said manufacturers indicate through voluntary labeling whether foods have or have not been developed through genetic engineering.
“FDA has received citizen petitions regarding genetically engineered foods, including the labeling of such foods,” she said. “The agency is currently considering those petitions, and at this time, has not made a decision, in whole or in part, regarding the petitions.”
Pompeo, however, is optimistic his bill will be introduced in the Senate and make it to the President’s desk by the end of the year. The Obama administration has said little on the GMO issue, despite a campaign vow that, under his administration, “We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified.” Obama’s silence since those 2007 remarks has raised questions about whether the president would sign the Pompeo-Butterfield bill.
The Stakes are High
It is hard to predict whether the concern over GMO foods turns out to be valid or just a tempest in a teapot. History will be the judge as to whether our experiment with GMO foods was prudent. Given the experience with medications such as Vioxx, FDA assurances about safety are cold comfort to many. Recent concerns about the health effects of hybridized wheat are another example of how genetic modification, whether natural or engineered, can have unexpected, long term consequences.
Steven Druker, the author of the newly released book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, said scientists and health officials don’t know for sure yet how GMOs will affect people because the testing hasn’t been done. “We have evidence of harm to animals that have ingested these products, but there have not been human clinical trials,” he said.
Unfortunately, his last statement may be wrong; de facto human trials are underway.