New England Farmers Union (NEFU) supports mandatory labeling of all food that contains ingredients from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). We recognize that consumers continuously voice a strong demand for the information they need to make informed food choices, and polls show that over 90% of Americans support the labeling of GMO food.
The issue of GMOs in our food system is complicated, and New England Farmers Union recognizes that farmers come down on both sides of the argument as to whether there’s a need to label GMO products and whether there is even a need for GMO crops at all. GMOs have created ethical, environmental, food safety, and structural issues that impact the entire food chain. However, we believe that farmers deserve access to proven farming technologies without being stigmatized. And consumers have the right to know how their food is grown and processed. A label accomplishes these very objectives – it provides consumers with the information they are seeking, but it does not restrict the ability of farmers to use GMO technology if they so choose. Labeling provides critical protections for farmers, and ensures transparency for consumers as they navigate their local supermarket, farmers market, or co-op.
Unfortunately, legislation introduced in the House by Reps Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) (HR 1599) not only fails to provide consumers with the basic right to identify genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food, but it goes even further by blocking future labeling efforts at the state or federal level. And state laws matter, because even with an ultimate goal of a national labeling policy, it will be these state laws that inform and shape the future of a national GMO labeling policy. The bill currently has 20 cosponsors, and as it quickly makes its way through Congress, it’s important that farmers and consumers take a stand against this anti-labeling legislation.
HR 1599: What’s it all about?
Blocks State and National Labeling Laws
While a uniform national labeling standard would be the simplest to enforce, the lack of such a standard has prompted several states (including Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut) to develop labeling laws of their own. This bill prevents states from establishing GMO labeling laws and blocks any existing laws. HR 1599 not only eliminates state labeling laws, but it also restricts FDA’s ability to mandate national labeling laws, an authority that FDA currently holds. It limits the circumstances under which FDA can call for a disclosure of critical information for consumers, narrowing its authority to work directly with food companies and consumer advocates on a national labeling standard.
The bill also blocks national labeling laws because it maintains the status quo of voluntary GMO labeling, which has yet to be adopted by a single company. In 2001 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued draft guidance for companies to voluntarily label their products that contain GMOs. Despite the fact that not a single company has adopted the guidance, HR 1599 would make voluntary labeling the law of the land, continuing to block transparency for farmers and consumers.
Allows GMOs to be Labeled “Natural” and Weakens Review
HR 1599 does require FDA to define “natural” in the next two years, but if GMOs were included in such a definition (which the bill does not prohibit), “natural” would fail to provide much needed transparency for consumers. HR 1599 would further block any state provisions that make it illegal to label foods containing GMOs as “natural.” HR 1599 also includes guidance for reviewing the safety of new GMO products, but the bill includes loopholes to automatically approve products that aren’t assessed by FDA within 180 days. Furthermore, the proposed “non GMO” USDA certification would still not provide a solution, because the only way this would provide any insight if everything without GMOs was labeled as such.
Federal Legislation and State Initiatives: How did we get here?
This anti-GMO labeling law has been (unsuccessfully) introduced before. Last year Rep. Pompeo introduced a very similar bill (HR4432) to prohibit any mandatory labeling of bioengineered products, aimed at nullifying any state laws, blocking federal standards, and maintaining the practice of voluntary labeling. The House Energy and Commerce held a hearing in December of 2014, which included testimony representing strong opposition to the bill. HR 4432 never made it out of committee, reflecting a continued demand for a true labeling solution.
Many members of Congress already recognize the need for transparency. Legislation introduced in the House and Senate does represent the GMO labeling concerns of farmers and consumers throughout the country. The bill introduced in the House by Rep. DeFazio (D-OR) and in the Senate by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) would require FDA to label all foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
State laws matter. Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont have already responded to consumer demand for transparency around the sources of their food by passing GMO labeling laws, and Massachusetts has introduced a GMO labeling bill, which was recently referred to the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and the Environment. This momentum is widespread throughout the county, as nationwide, more than 70 labeling bills have been introduced in more than 30 states.
Common labeling misconceptions– GMO labeling will not increase food prices. Companies frequently change their labels with new claims, so GMO disclosure will not increase the price of food. Consumers will not reject foods with GMO labels, but rather will have the opportunity to make food-purchasing decisions based on the attributes that matter most to them.
As HR 1599 makes its way through Congress, it’s important that your members of Congress hear your opposition to this anti-labeling bill. Click here to make your voice heard!