The question of how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should approach the regulation of genetically engineered (GE) food — and particularly its labeling, or lack thereof — was the topic of a hearing by the House Energy & Commerce Committee on Wednesday. The biggest question of the day: Should a federal law be passed to regulate consumer information about GE foods, either by requiring a label for foods produced with GE technology, or by restricting the ability of states to create their own GE labeling rules? The hearing saw lawmakers pose questions to six experts on both sides of the debate over a three-hour period. While those opposed to GE labeling tended to focus on the scientific evidence supporting the safety of GE crops, labeling supporters emphasized their belief in the public’s right to know how their food is produced. The major laws on everyone’s minds were the number of state-level GE labeling laws that have been voted on — and, in a few states, passed — in recent years, as well a House bill from Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) that would establish a federal law against GE-labeling mandates at state or local levels. Organized into two panels, the hearing first featured testimony from Michael Landa, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Landa said that, in 20 years of FDA reviews on more than 100 types of GE foods, the agency has never found evidence to suggest they pose a greater food-safety risk compared to their non-GE counterparts. Because of the lack of evidence of a food-safety concern, Landa said he didn’t see a justification for mandating a label on GE foods. When it comes to labels, FDA’s main responsibility is ensuring that information on food packaging is not false or misleading, he said, and requiring a label on GE foods wouldn’t satisfy that responsibility. Given that, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) asked Landa if FDA would be worried about a law that required labeling of GE foods. Landa said the administration has no official position on the prospect of a GE-labeling law, but would, of course, comply with it. “We’d implement the law as best we could,” Landa said. “But what is the limiting principle? If the question is the public’s right to know, I’m not sure how you answer what people do not have a right to know.” Waxman compared GE labeling to required labeling on irradiated foods, such as spices, which are treated with targeted amounts of energy to kill microorganisms and insects. He asked Landa why irradiated foods were required to be labeled if they are also seen as posing no additional food-safety risk. Landa replied that when the irradiation process was first approved, it was thought to potentially change the composition of food, thereby making it different in some way from non-irradiated counterparts and justifying a label. There’s now a proposal at FDA to no longer require labeling of irradiated food, he added. “We don’t require labeling based on method of production alone because we have found it is not material to safety or nutritional composition,” Landa said. Some members of the second panel, however, believed that providing consumers with basic information about their food via a label was justified. A label doesn’t have to be reserved for identifying foods as unsafe, said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental organization involved in GE-labeling campaigns in various states. “We believe that a factual, non-judgmental disclosure on the back of the package would be fine,” Faber said. The vast majority of food producers change their labels fairly regularly with no fuss about the cost, Faber added, saying that many claims that GE labeling would significantly affect grocery prices have been proven to be unfounded. Consumers overwhelmingly want a label, added Kate Webb, assistant majority leader of the Vermont House of Representatives. Webb was a key backer of Vermont’s bill to label GE foods sold in the state. “There’s nothing in our bill that says genetically engineered foods are bad,” Webb said, suggesting that a label would not dramatically impact the food industry in that most consumers would continue with their normal shopping habits. Country-of-origin labeling on meat was another example of a label meant to give consumers information without having a bearing on safety or declaring that the product was bad or good, Webb added. The second panel also featured testimony from Alison Van Eenennaam, cooperative extension specialist in animal science at the University of California, Davis. Eenennaam echoed Landa’s sentiments about the lack of justification for singling out the production method of genetic engineering with a label. Every major scientific body in the world that has examined the safety of genetic engineering has come to the same conclusion: It’s safe, Eenennaam said. She compared it to the near-unanimous agreement the scientific community has about climate change, but said that recognition of GE safety is even more universally supported. The panel also featured Stacey Forshee, a farmer and fifth district director of the Kansas Farm Bureau, who said that GE crops on her farm save her and her husband up to 40 percent on fuel, fertilizer and pesticide costs. Forshee added that using GE crops allows their farm to have a smaller impact on the environment, and she worried that a law requiring labeling of GE foods would mislead some consumers into thinking the food was unsafe. Tom Dempsey, president and CEO of the Snack Food Association, said that producing new labels and packages for foods to accommodate GE labeling would most severely impact small businesses and localized food producers, some of whom haven’t updated their packages in decades. Dempsey said that the “GMO-Free” labeling campaign adopted by non-GE food producers was a much better alternative to requiring GE labeling. Faber of the Environmental Working Group said that part of the problem is other food labels, such as “Natural,” which is allowed to go on food that contain GE ingredients. The majority of Americans believe the “Natural” label would suggest the products are GMO-free, Faber said, even though that’s not the case. A required GE label would clarify that confusion. By the end of that panel, the members of Congress participating in the hearing seemed to agree on one thing: Having a patchwork of 50 different labeling laws for each state was not the way to go. “I’m convinced we need a national standard,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), saying that, given the number of foods containing GE ingredients today, it might be more reasonable to label GMO-free products.