National Milk Producers Foundation and International Dairy Foods Association are applauding a bill in the House of Representatives to establish federal standards for the voluntary labeling of foods and beverages containing genetically modified ingredients.
The bill, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., would require FDA to set standards for companies that wish to voluntarily label their products as containing or not containing GMOs.
It also gives FDA sole authority to require mandatory labeling on such foods if they are ever found to be unsafe or materially different from foods produced without GMOs.
Chris Galen, senior vice president of communications for National Milk Producers Federation, said the legislation is important to prevent individual states from requiring GMO labeling, which would create a nightmare for producers and dealers.
He said various state laws requiring labeling would wreak havoc on marketing, distribution and product segregation.
There have already been some high-profile state ballot initiatives to require labeling of GMOs, such as those in California and Washington, and there is currently one under way in Vermont. Those initiatives have failed in the past, but the concern is they’ll resurface, he said.
The effort for national standards is being led by farm organizations and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which sees the potential for a patchwork of state labeling laws, he said.
The proposed bill does not block mandatory labeling by FDA but it does block state-by-state labeling of GMO foods or food ingredients, said Ruth Saunders, International Dairy Foods Association’s vice president for policy and legislative affairs.
That’s important for anyone participating in interstate commerce. It would be virtually impossible to make product to meet various labeling requirements in different states, she said.
“We really need a federal definition of things so everyone is playing by the same rules,” she said.
States could still pass labeling regulations, but they would likely be challenged on constitutional argument as it relates to interstate trade, she said.
IDFA said the legislation takes an important step toward restoring certainty to America’s food producers and avoiding the confusion sure to come from a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws.
The Center for Food Safety opposes the bill, calling it an unprecedented attack on consumer rights.
It would prevent states from protecting their citizens and prevent FDA from providing consumers with the information they want, said Collin O’Neal, the Center’s director of government affairs.
“This is really the industry’s attempt to pre-empt the labeling movement at the state level,” he said.
He said ninety-three percent of U.S. consumers support mandatory labeling, and 26 states introduced bills or ballot initiatives last year. Mandatory labeling is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, O’Neal said.
The industry, primarily the Grocery Manufacturers Association, sees the writing on the wall, and this is a last-ditch effort to prevent consumers from having access to fundamental information about their food, he said.
The National Farmers Union is also opposed to the voluntary labeling bill, saying its members support mandatory labeling for foods made from or containing GMOs.
“NFU policy supports conspicuous, mandatory labeling for food products throughout the processing chain to include all ingredients, additives and processes … ,” NFU President Roger Johnson said in a prepared statement.
Surveys have consistently shown consumers want more information about their food, and the prevalence of state-led efforts to label GMOs corroborates those findings, he said.
In addition, NFU supports the authority of lower levels of government and opposes pre-emption by federal standards.
The bill would require federal standards for voluntary labeling of products, similar to what FDA did years ago when it allowed producers to use Posilac, a synthetic hormone to boost milk production, Galen said.
For marketing reasons, some dairy product companies wanted to state the absence of Posilac use in the dairy cows that produced milk for the products, and FDA provided specific guidance on what could and could not be stated on the label, he said.
For example, labels could not state that the milk or product was hormone-free because milk naturally contains hormones. And if the label stated free of synthetic hormones, it had to qualifying that with a statement saying FDA has found no significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.
In the absence of national standards, the variety of claims could create confusion. If dairy product manufacturers want to engage in voluntary labeling regarding GMOs, National Milk wants national standards in place, he said.
There are some members of Congress who want to see mandatory labels for foods containing GMOs, but that proposal doesn’t have the support to pass, Galen said.
National Milk hopes those congressional members who want mandatory labeling recognize that and focus instead on supporting a systemized, methodical approach to voluntary labeling.
Pompeo’s bill also requires FDA to conduct a safety review of all new GMO traits before they are introduced into commerce and to define the term “natural” for its use on labels to provide a uniform definition when applied to food.