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A 2013 demonstration in favor of labeling GMO foods in California.

Steve Rhodes/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

U.S. House moves to block labeling of GM foods

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved a bill that would block states and localities from requiring mandatory labeling of food made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It would also set up a voluntary federal program for manufacturers to certify foods that don’t contain GMOs.

The bill’s supporters—Republicans, some Democrats, and the food industry—call the bill a science-based effort to balance consumer right-to-know concerns with the need for a uniform national policy. Opponents of the bill, including environmental and food activists and liberal Democrats, argue that it would deny people the right to know what is in their food.

On a 275 to 150 vote, with 45 Democrats joining 230 Republicans, the House approved H.R. 1599, the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act, a measure sponsored by Representative Mike Pompeo (R–KS). The bill’s future in the Senate is unclear and the White House has yet to weigh in. But proponents called it a first step toward a badly needed update to the nation’s food policy in the biotechnology age.

“We believe that this is a reasonable, workable solution that balances consumer demand to know more about their food with what we know about the safety of the foods the we produce,” Representative Collin Peterson (D–MN), one of the bill’s supporters, said yesterday on the House floor.

The bill comes as lawmakers’ attempt to respond to a growing movement across the country to enact state and local laws that require the labeling of GMOs or foods derived from them. Vermont became the first U.S. state to enact a mandatory GMO labeling law in 2014.  Connecticut and Maine recently enacted measures that call for GMO labeling if other nearby states also enact labeling laws. Sixty-four nations require GMO labeling, but the U.S. political environment has long prevented the adoption of any national policy on the growing use of biotechnology in food.

The burgeoning state and local labeling push stems from several concerns raised by activist groups. Some have argued that the GMOs are unsafe to eat (claims rejected by top scientific and health bodies) or not sufficiently reviewed. Others have suggested that it’s simply a matter of consumers’ right to know what’s in their food. But opponents of labeling argue that it unfairly singles out GMOs while ignoring crops bred by other methods. And food producers have complained that a patchwork of state and local labeling requirements could confuse consumers and raise food prices.

H.R. 1599’s backers believe their bill strikes a good balance. The bill would block mandatory GMO labeling laws such as Vermont’s. But it also would set up a voluntary, national program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for food producers who want to seek non-GMO certification. As an added measure, the bill would make mandatory a currently voluntary consultation process that regulators have long used to review the safety of GMOs, which allows the Food and Drug Administration to block the sale of any food it deems unsafe or lacking sufficient safety data. (Although voluntary, Grist’s Nathanael Johnson has reported that all GMOs sold in the U.S. have gone through this review process.)

Pompeo noted before the vote that top scientific and health authorities—including the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization—have said that current GMOs are just as safe for human consumption as their non-GMO counterparts, and unlikely to pose greater risks to the environment. To require labeling of all GMOs, he said, would be to ignore this scientific consensus.

Responses from Democrats, most of whom were critical, varied in tone. Rep. Peter Welch (D–VT) said the bill would effectively bar states and localities from giving consumers more information while enacting a relatively weak federal system. “This is not a question of whether the science says that GMO foods cause medical issues,” he said on the House floor. (The Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., offered a similar criticism in response to the vote, dubbing the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.”)

Rep. Frank Pallone (D–NJ), top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, offered more measured criticism. He agreed with Pompeo that GMOs are safe, saying that they otherwise wouldn’t be in commerce. “Although I don’t know of any scientific reasons to require genetically engineered foods to be labeled differently than nongenetically engineered foods, I do not believe we will be engendering confidence in these foods” if we pass the bill, he said on the House floor. Environmental groups also worry about bill language that they contend would block states and localities from regulating “natural” claims on food labels and approving other kinds of laws related to GMOs.

But Pompeo said that “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 a government warning label because the producer chose a different breeding technology. That’s unscientific, and it’s bad public policy.”

It’s not clear whether the Senate will consider similar legislation.