Timing right for federal standard on GMO: AHPA

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

Timing right for federal standard on GMO disclosure: AHPA

Related tags Genetically modified organism

With more than 85% of the votes in on Washington State's GMO labeling initiative 522 as of Thursday night, it appears that the Yes side has an insurmountable deficit to overcome, getting 47% of votes to the No side’s 53%. (Due to the state’s unique mail-in voting system, the outcome may not be clear until this weekend.) So what now? 

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) says it’s the right time to bring both sides in and agree on a federal standard for voluntary disclosure of GMOs.

“We have an opportunity right now while there is pain on one side and glee on the other to establish a pragmatic path forward,”​ Michael McGuffin, president of AHPA, told FoodNavigator-USA.

I really believe if we could get federal legislation that instructs either the FDA or USDA to establish a standard for non-GMO labeling that would ensure the absence of GMO ingredients, what we would find is companies would want to participate. There’s been a proliferation of GMO labeling that’s already being marketed to the consumers who won’t eat a product if there’s GMOs in it. But there’s less liability if they do so under a federal standard.”

As it stands, federal law doesn’t require labeling of foods from genetically engineered crops, as the FDA has consistently argued that they don’t differ from other foods in any meaningful way or present any safety concerns. 

Meanwhile, the broad consensus among regulatory, scientific and government bodies—from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization, Health Canada, the FDA, USDA and the National Academy of Sciences—is that foods from GM crops are safe for human consumption and do not present greater risks to the environment than their conventional counterparts.

Supporters of labeling argue that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. But big biotech and food companies have continued to oppose it—to the tune of tens of millions of dollars—contending that it reinforces the erroneous perception that there’s something wrong with GMOs.

"I just can't believe that in a democratic, capitalist society like the United States, in the year 2013, we don't already have mandatory GMO labeling," says Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now.

Voluntary labeling helps biotech

Consumer advocacy groups like Food Democracy Now and the Organic Consumers Association remain outspoken in their opposition to voluntary labeling, arguing it would preempt legitimate state action for mandatory GMO labels, effectively keeping labeling on the terms of big food and biotech firms, said Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now.

“Government regulatory agencies and elected officials are there to protect the rights of citizens, not corporations. Voluntary labeling is essentially a ‘get out of jail free’ card for Monsanto, DuPont and junk food manufacturers.”

Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the OCA, added: “The problem is the how the FDA, letting biotech and big food call the shots, has harassed non-GMO and organic producers in an attempt to prevent them from sharing any information with consumers about their decision not to use genetic engineering.”

But McGuffin insists that big food isn’t blind to the fact that 90% of consumers say they support GMO labeling. “They call those people customers, and they want to sell to them,”​ he said. “They just don’t want to have to brand products they’re not selling to that market in a manner that has in their view an association with lack of safety, or ‘Frankenfood.’”

Moreover, federal initiatives like the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act have been unable to capture broad support in Congress, as was the case with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposed amendment to the Farm Bill to allow states to establish their own GMO labels, which was voted down 27-71 (and opposed by a number of Senate Democrats, most of whom represented farm states).

If OFPA had proposed mandatory listing of pesticides, it wouldn't have passed

That’s why AHPA maintains that the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 is a great model for GMO labeling, as it established a regulatory framework for standardizing what constitutes organic. 

“I see the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 serving as a model here​,” McGuffin said.

“If OFPA had proposed a law that would require companies to list all the pesticides used on their ingredients, it wouldn’t have passed. What that law did instead was instruct the USDA to establish a standard for voluntary disclosure of organic.”

In line with this notion, AHPA is calling for establishment of a federal standard for what non-GMO or GMO-free means, which could also consist of a tiered approach, as was created for organics ("100% organic", "organic" [95-100%], "made with organic [ingredients listed, 70-94%]", and organic [ingredients listed, less than 70%]. "Then you'll have those with an absolutely pure GMO claim, a really good or good GMO claim," ​McGuffin said. "That's a pragmatic solution and ensures consumers are informed." 

The EU already has a threshold of 0.9% and above for foods to be labeled GMO (which accounts for potential GMO contamination), a standard that's also used in the 60-odd countries worldwide that mandate GMO labeling—and that Murphy says should be implemented in the US as well. 

“There is already a definition and a percentage allowance for GMOs. The only reason the organic standards were divided is because corporations were trying to weaken them.”​ he said.  

AHPA's Michael McGuffin says, "The AHPA member firms all agree to acknowledge consumers' right to know what’s in the products they use. But we have member companies both for and against GMO labeling. It's pretty rare in our association for us not to achieve consensus."

If you force companies to do something they don't want to do, they will oppose you​ 

McGuffin noted that at the end of the day, compromise will be necessary to make GMO labeling a reality in the US.

"I'm not introducing any ideas that are brand new; OFPA figured it out 23 years ago,"​ he said. "If what you do is force companies that don't want to do something to do it, they will oppose you. We have member companies that are strong advocates of GMO labeling and others that oppose it. We're trying to bring all those sides together.

"I really think we can get the Grocery Manufacturers Association on one side and (Bronner's Magic Soaps') David Bronner on the other to agree to support a federal standard for voluntary disclosure. 

“But sooner is better; $30 million was sunk into the effort this year; last year, it was 50 million—the clamor is there, the interest is there, but there’s a better way to use those funds.”

Related topics Regulation The GM debate GMO Labeling

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