WASHINGTON -- Do you want to know whether your food has genetically modified organisms in it? The House of Representatives voted to make that harder on Thursday by banning states from passing their own laws requiring GMO labels.
Instead, the House passed a bill called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act that would set up a voluntary program for companies that want to disclose genetically modified ingredients. Firms that want to claim their food is GMO-free would have to submit to a certification process overseen by the Department of Agriculture.
But the measure would ban states such as Vermont, Maine and Connecticut, which have passed GMO-labeling laws, from putting them into practice. It would also allow the Food and Drug Administration to define the label “natural” to include genetically engineered material.
Supporters of the bill said it was a matter of keep the rules simple across the country and not unnecessarily frightening consumers.
“The fact is, the scientific consensus on the safety of genetically engineered products is utterly overwhelming. Precisely zero pieces of credible evidence have been presented that foods produced with biotechnology pose any risk to our health and safety,” said Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), the bill’s sponsor.
“Given this fact, it is not the place of government, government at any level, to arbitrarily step in and mandate that one plant product should be labeled based solely on how it was bred, while another identical product is free of government warning labels because the producer chose a different breeding technology,” he said.
Pompeo added that efforts to label products' GMO content were a “naked attempt to impose the preferences of a small segment of the populace on the rest of us and make the constituents that I serve in Kansas pay more for their food.”
A substantial portion of House Democrats agreed with Pompeo, and the measure passed 275 to 150.
But Democratic opponents pointed to surveys, including a recent poll by the Mellman Group, that found 90 percent of the country does want to know what's in the food.
“What this legislation is suggesting is that regardless of what consumers want, they won’t be told,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “This is not about a small group of activists. This is states like Vermont, like Maine and like Connecticut, with massive bipartisan votes, Republicans and Democrats, saying that they wanted to have the right to have these products labeled.”
“We strip from the states the right to do what they believe is in the interests of their citizens and don’t substitute any serious label that would apply across the board,” Welch added.
"This legislation, which should be called the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act, or the DARK Act, represents a major threat to consumer information," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). "States should have the right to determine their own local laws relating to GMO labeling, and the federal government shouldn’t interfere."
“Americans have a right to know what is in their food and how it is grown,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). “Instead of undermining this progress, Congress should require mandatory GMO labeling at the federal level.”
A counter measure offered by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), which would require GMO labels similar to those in 64 other countries, failed 123 to 303.
The bill that passed also requires companies that create new GMO foods to submit all their research showing the product is safe to the FDA for review.
DeFazio and others were especially perplexed by the suggestion that the FDA should define "natural" to include genetically engineered plants.
"I'm not quite sure when the last time was when a flounder mated with a tomato plant, but we now have tomatoes that have injected into them flounder genes," DeFazio said.
While the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act passed the House, an equivalent measure has yet to be produced in the Senate.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.