SAFE or DARK? Federal GMO Labeling Bill Raises Questions

Public voices demanding greater disclosure of genetically-modified ingredients in food products have definitely reached ears in Congress.

But a recent bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) from Kansas and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D) from North Carolina, has many wondering to whom, exactly, the congressmen are listening.

In April, Pompeo and Butterfield introduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, to establish federal labeling standards for foods containing GM ingredients, and giving sole authority to the Food and Drug Administration to determine if and when labeling should be mandatory.

The bill hit Congress roughly year after a highly publicized near-miss labeling mandate in California, and just prior to Vermont's passage of a no-holds-barred mandate effective 2016.

Pompeo and Butterfield claim that uniform federal standards enforced at the discretion of the FDA would pre-empt "a mish-mash of labeling standards" at the state level.

The Congressmen hold the position--widely promoted by biotech, agricultural and food manufacturing companies-- that GMOs are safe and necessary for assuring global food security.

Advocates of mandatory labeling have re-christened the new bill the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" (DARK) Act.

They say it simultaneously leaves the labeling decision to a federal agency ill-equipped and disinclined to require or enforce labeling, while superseding individual states' rights to respond to their citizens' demands.

Big Food Fight

Scott Faber, of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), predicted that the bill will set the stage for "the biggest food fight in the nation in 2015."

"This isn't an issue about technology. It's an issue of transparency. People want to know about their food---what's in it, who made it, where it came from, how it got to us," Faber said at the recent Nutrition Business Journal Summit.

"People support mandatory GE labeling regardless of ethnicity, income, education level, or political affiliation. You can't find an issue on which Americans agree more than the issue of the right to know." Labeling initiatives are now active in 35 state.

This issue has created a deep fissure within the natural foods and dietary supplements industry. For many ingredients, GMO-free options are in short supply. Some companies see labeling mandates—whether state or federal—as unnecessary, of dubious scientific merit, and economically burdensome.

GMO-LabelingThe Grocery Manufacturers Association, along with Monsanto, Pepsico, Coca-Cola and others vigorously oppose mandatory labeling at the state or federal level. But EWG's Faber noted that several companies that spent vigorously to defeat labeling in California, are staying out of the fray in Oregon and Colorado. "They're not advocating labeling, but they're not contributing to the opposition."

EWG, which spearheads the popular "Just Label It" campaign, is calling for mandatory nationwide GMO labeling, enforced at the federal level. While nobody close to the issue expects federal action in the near future, Mr. Faber predicted that, "This (labeling) will be the law of the land, eventually."

He urged manufacturers to bite the bullet, support a full-on federal labeling mandate, and be proactive in setting the national standards.

"The only thing worse for the food and supplements industry than mandatory labeling is the continuation of this fight against it. Because consumers are looking at who's with their right to know and who's against it. Opposition fuels mistrust."