WASHINGTON -- Congress took the first step Tuesday to ban states such as Vermont from requiring companies to label whether foods contain genetically modified organisms, advancing a House Agriculture Committee bill that would pre-empt such laws.
The bill, called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, sets up a voluntary program for companies that want to disclose genetically modified ingredients, and requires firms that develop new bioengineered foods to get them approved through what is now a voluntary program run by the Food and Drug Administration. Under that program, the FDA reviews a company’s claims that a product is safe, and either objects or not.
Companies that want to label their products as being GMO-free would also have to submit to a certification process overseen by the Department of Agriculture. One provision added to the bill specifies that non-GMO milk or meat could not come from animals fed genetically engineered feed. But GMOs could be used to produce enzymes used in food production, and genetically engineered plants could be used as a nutrient source for microorganisms used to create food. A summary of the bill is here.
“As this Committee has repeatedly observed, the keys to success in any marketing venture are voluntary participation, robust, transparent and meaningful standards, and comprehensive enforcement,” Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said. “The legislation before us hits all of these marks. In developing this program, we likewise address the very real threat to interstate commerce posed by the impending implementation of a state law in Vermont.”
We’re basically propounding a voluntary system, and we’re preempting states
Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.)
Maine and Connecticut have also passed labeling laws, but those depend on neighboring states taking similar steps.
The House bill passed on a bipartisan voice vote, but some members on both sides of the aisle objected, noting that the measure runs counter to common GOP assertions of states’ rights, and consumers’ demand to know what is in their food.
“More than 90 percent of Americans want to know if their food contains GMOs, and they ought to be able to know that information,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) “I know that it’s a radical idea, but why not give the American people what they want?”
“People want to know. I’m hearing from my constituents, and they’re concerned,” said Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), whose district abuts Vermont.
“I do agree that a national standard would be better than state standards, but that’s not what’s happening here,” Gibson added. “We’re basically propounding a voluntary system, and we’re preempting states that have decided to go with the mandatory disclosure.”
Opponents of GMO labeling say it would be expensive and raise costs for consumers. They also argue simultaneously that consumers don’t pay much attention to labels and that labels have negative impacts.
McGovern didn’t see much merit in such arguments.
“You know, 64 other countries have GMO labeling laws, and the sky hasn’t fallen in on those countries,” he said. “Food prices haven’t increased, consumers haven’t stopped eating GMO foods. Consumers simply know what’s in their food, and how it’s produced.”
He also argued that the committee’s bill sows more confusion by allowing genetically engineered foods to be marketed as “natural.” Instead, he said, the country should embrace Vermont’s standards.
“I would suggest that we need mandatory GMO labeling to cut through all the confusion,” McGovern said.
The measure could come to the floor of the House later this month. The Senate has proposed companion legislation, but has yet to act on it.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.