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Activists blast moves by GMA to pre-empt state-driven GMO labeling initiatives with new 'federal solution'

By Elaine WATSON , 07-Jan-2014
Last updated the 08-Jan-2014 at 17:40 GMT

The GMA wants the FDA to develop federal regulations for the voluntary labeling of GMOs (or their absence)
The GMA wants the FDA to develop federal regulations for the voluntary labeling of GMOs (or their absence)

Anti-GMO activists have reacted with fury to leaked proposals by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to develop federal rules governing GMO labeling that would pre-empt state-driven initiatives.

The pro-labeling movement went into overdrive on Tuesday after POLITICO  referred to a ‘discussion draft’ it had obtained from an unnamed source summarizing the GMA’s proposals.

Judging by the content, the un-dated five-page summary - seen by FoodNavigator-USA - was written last fall. However, the GMA has not commented on how it differs from later drafts (which it will not release):

According to the document:

1 - PRE-MARKET NOTIFICATION - The proposal would require developers of new bioengineered foods to notify the FDA 120 days before they are due to hit the market explaining why they think they are “as safe as a comparable traditional food”. The FDA would then review the data and issue a letter of no objection if appropriate. Existing GM foods would be ‘grandfathered’ in. Currently, the notification process is voluntary.

2 - VOLUNTARY LABELING - The GMA proposal would authorize the FDA to develop regulations for the voluntary labeling of bioengineered ingredients. It would also allow manufacturers to voluntarily make claims about the absence of GMOs under a new FDA-regulated certification and verification process. However, firms would not be allowed to state or imply that a food is more or less safe because of the presence or absence of GMOs. 

As part of the review process the FDA would also be able to stipulate if it thinks labels are needed “to protect health or safety, or prevent labels from being false or misleading based on any material difference between the bioengineered food and the comparable traditional food”.  

However, it goes on to stress that the use of bioengineering “does not by itself constitute a material difference”.

3 - NATURAL CLAIMS - The GMA urges the FDA to develop a federal definition for ‘natural’ claims on product labels including: ‘All-natural’, ‘100% natural’, ‘nothing artificial’, ‘naturally-grown’, and ‘no artificial ingredients’. It  doesn’t stipulate what the criteria might be, although a letter sent to the FDA last month indicates that the GMA believes that foods containing GMOs should be considered ‘natural’ (click here ).

4 - FEDERAL SOLUTION WOULD TRUMPS STATE RULES - Finally - and this is the bit that all the GMO-labeling advocates are kicking up such a fuss about - it would pre-empt any state-led initiatives covering natural or GMO claims:

“Given this new legal framework, states would be precluded from imposing any requirements that are not identical to these federal requirements.”

GMA: Federal solution better for consumers and manufacturers

The GMA would not tell FoodNavigator-USA whether it has identified a sponsor for any proposed bill along these lines, although POLITICO claimed that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) had been approached.  

Explaining the rationale behind the proposals, the association says a patchwork of state-specific initiatives would be a nightmare for manufacturers and consumers, and that a federal solution would be in everyone’s best interests. 

CFS: GMA will do everything in its power to keep public in the dark 

However, those calling for mandatory GMO-labeling have reacted with fury to the leaked document.

The Center for Food Safety - which recently wrote to the FDA arguing that GE foods should not be defined as ‘natural’ - said that in 2013, 26 states introduced mandatory labeling legislation, with more activity planned in 2014. 

Executive director Andrew Kimbrell said: “The GMA will do anything in its power to keep the public from knowing what is in the food they are buying. We and our allies in the food movement will work to make sure that the public’s right to know is protected and that this bill if introduced, is dead on arrival.”

 Meanwhile, Just Label It (JLI) executive director Scott Faber immediately issued a statement claiming that “this ‘Hail Mary’ pass comes too late to deny consumers the right to know what’s in their food”.

Just Label It campaign: Move smacks of desperation

He added: “Now is the time for food companies to work with JLI and others to craft a national mandatory labeling system, not make desperate moves to block states from protecting their consumers from misleading “natural” claims or to tie FDA’s hands in red tape.” 

Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook was equally irate, claiming that the industry “will stop at nothing to hide from its customers basic information on what’s in their food”.

He added: “If this proposal were to become law, it would make it impossible for any state to require labeling of GE foods, even if an overwhelming majority of its residents demand it.”

OCA: The food industry is running scared

At the Organic Consumers Association, communications director Katherine Paul was equally scathing: "After spending millions to defeat GMO labeling initiatives in California and Washington State, the food industry is running scared. This latest attempt to preempt state GMO labeling laws, and subvert the democratic process, comes as no surprise. The OCA will fight any attempt by industry to prevent U.S. consumers from having the same laws and protections that consumers in 60 other countries already have."

Connecticut and Maine passed GMO-labeling bills last year, but both feature clauses requiring other contiguous states to implement similar measures before they take effect.

CSPI: Pre-market approval, not just mandatory pre-notification, is needed

At the Center for Science in the Public Interest, director of biotechnology Gregory Jaffe told FoodNavigator-USA that regarding the safety/approval of new bioengineered foods it was "not clear" how what the GMA is proposing really differs from the current system, other than that pre-notification is mandatory.

He added: "We'd like the FDA to step up and have a bigger role here and create a mandatory pre-market approval - rather than just a notification - process - so that you couldn't put a product on the market until the FDA were satisfied that it's safe."

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