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House Holds Hearing on Bill To Block State GE Labeling Laws

December 11, 2014

Washington saw an active week on the genetically engineered (GE) crops front, as GE labeling proponents and activists flooded a Wednesday morning hearing on a controversial labeling bill.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee heard testimony from six witnesses in a two-panel hearing on legislation introduced by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) earlier this year. If passed, H.R. 4432 would preempt state laws requiring labeling. Such laws have been passed in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont in the past 12 months, and proposed in states throughout the country.

As written, the bill would give labeling authority to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which does not currently require labeling of GE crops or products containing GE ingredients, claiming they are not materially different than their conventional counterparts. Proponents of the bill say it is necessary to avoid a complicated patchwork of potentially conflicting state laws. But GE labeling advocates are fighting to halt the proposed legislation in its tracks, arguing that it takes away states’ rights by effectively nullifying state labeling initiatives.

The Hearing

In the first panel, Michael Landa, Director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the agency remained confident in its current testing process for GE crops and would continue to support a voluntary framework for labeling GE products.

Landa fielded questions from members of the committee concerning everything from why the FDA runs tests on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at all to what GE labeling would look like in practice.

Representatives Lois Capps (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) both expressed concerns that the use of the word “natural” as a label on GE foods was misleading consumers, and questioned whether the FDA intended to clarify a definition for the “natural” label. According to Landa, the agency has attempted to clarify the label in the past, and may continue the effort in the future. “If we decide to reconsider this issue, it will have to be a public process—whether we embark on a rulemaking or guidance,” he said.

After Landa, a five-person panel provided varied perspectives on GE processing and labeling. The panel included:

  • Alison Van Eenennaam, Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of California-Davis
  • Scott Faber, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs with the Environmental Working Group
  • Representative Kate Webb, Assistant Majority Leader of the Vermont House of Representatives
  • Stacey Forshee, Fifth District Director of the Kansas Farm Bureau, and
  • Tom Dempsey, President and CEO of the Snack Food Association

While Van Eenennaam, Forshee, and Dempsey decried GE labeling as unnecessary, expensive, and time-consuming, Faber and Webb touted the benefits of labeling for consumers and producers alike, and defended state-level labeling initiatives in the absence of federal leadership.

“This is not just a question of (consumer) right to know, it’s also a question of consumer confusion,” Faber told the subcommittee. “Sixty percent of consumers believe all natural foods are GMO-free. We believe that informative, factual, nonjudgmental disclosure on the back of the package could help reduce that confusion.”

State Labeling and NRC Study

While there is no time to move H.R. 4432 before the end of the Congressional lame duck session, the bill comes at a time when state labeling initiatives are on a roller coaster ride of successes and setbacks. Last December, Connecticut became the first state to sign labeling requirements into law, closely followed by Maine. Both states, however, require nearby states to enact similar legislation before the rules go into effect.

Vermont passed its own GE labeling law this year and expects rules to be finalized in July 2015, according to Webb, but now faces a legal challenge from a group of farmers and biotechnology industry representatives. And, despite gains in the northeast, the November election brought bad news to labeling proponents out west, as ballot initiatives requiring GE labeling were defeated in Colorado and Oregon. The campaigns are costly, too, with labeling opponents in Oregon raising more than $18 million to defeat the initiative, and making Measure 92 the most expensive issue campaign in state history.

While states sort out the labeling questions, the National Research Council is diving into the science behind GE crops and controversy. The study, Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects, is funded in part by the National Academy of Sciences and U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide clarity on GE effectiveness and safety. The study’s committee heard from industry, government, and academic experts at its second public meeting on Wednesday, December 10. For more information on the meeting, view the agenda online.

NSAC will continue to follow GE labeling, including H.R. 4432, and the GE crops study, and provide more information as it becomes available.

Categories: General Interest

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