Labeling food containing genetically modified ingredients might be a federal issue at some point, but the states are not done with it yet. Next month, two state capitals within easy earshot of the major media outlets – Albany, NY, and Annapolis, MD – are going to be holding public hearings on serious GMO labeling bills. Until those states and others make their own decisions, it’s unlikely that labeling advocates are going to want to turn decisions on the matter over to the much-maligned U.S. Congress. Moving the GMO battle to Washington, D.C., is the idea of the powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association. It has enlisted 28 food and agricultural organizations to help persuade Congress to preempt the states with federal legislation making GMO labeling a more prescribed, but largely voluntary, pursuit. The GMA coalition won expensive initiative battles over GMO labeling in 2012 and 2013 in California and Washington state, respectively. The cost of those victories, however, has the food and agricultural interests looking for a federal solution. The GMA-led formation of the “Coalition for Safe Affordable Food” to try and keep the issue in D.C. was met with disdain by many labeling advocates. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said the new coalition was organized to “steal away consumer choice in Congress.” But Leah Wilkinson, director of ingredients, pet food, and state affairs for the American Feed Industry Association, and a member of the coalition, says there needs to be a “federal GMO labeling solution.” “If a labeling solution is not agreed upon and even a few of the pending state initiatives are successful, the feed industry’s costs of doing business goes up, on-farm production costs go up, and ultimately the consumer pays the price, with no important information in hand,” Wilkinson says. In reality, both sides have looked to Washington, D.C., for a solution for some time. The pro-labeling side got there first with federal legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and U.S. Rep Peter DeFazio (D-OR) to mandate national labeling of GMO foods. At this point, the GMA-led group does not have specific legislation, but there is a list of elements that members want to see in their “solution.” These include:
- No “patchwork” of 50 state GMO safety and labeling laws, meaning that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will continue as the nation’s authority.
- Labeling should advance food safety and require safety, health and nutritional reasons for any mandated GMO labeling.
- Standards should exist for voluntary labeling to inform consumers whether GE processing was or was not used.
- FDA will define “natural” so that the term is used consistently.
“Foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) are safe and have a number of important benefits for people and our planet, said GMA President Pamela G. Bailey. “Our nation’s food safety and labeling laws should not be set by political campaigns or state and local legislatures, but by the FDA, the nation’s foremost food safety agency.” Campaigning is expensive. GMA and its allies spent more than $70 million to defeat the initiatives in California and Washington state. A mix of organic, supplement and alternative medicine interests spent about one-third of that pushing their ill-fated ballot measures. While the sides circle each other in Washington, D.C., play continues in the states. Both Maryland and New York are girding for debates that will get underway in earnest in March. Last year, a GMO bill died late in the session in Albany. GMO bills are back in both the Empire State Senate and the Assembly. Bipartisan sponsorship by Democrat Linda Rosenthal in the Assembly and Republican Ken LaValle in the Senate on a bill that requires all GMO food sold in the state to be labeled will get hearings in both chambers, probably in late March. Meanwhile, Maryland’s House Bill 1191, which is cross-filed as Senate Bill 0776, has been scheduled for a hearing before the Health and Government Operations Committee on March 11 at 1 p.m. The House/Senate measures require specified raw foods and packaged foods that are entirely or partially produced with GMO ingredients to be labeled.