A patchwork of state GMO laws would cause more problems than solutions, lawmakers argue

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

State GMO laws would cause more problems than solutions, lawmakers say

Related tags Gmo labeling Genetically modified organism

A federal labeling standard for genetically modified foods applied nationwide is better for industry and consumers than a patchwork of state regulations, advocates for and against mandatory GMO labeling agreed Dec. 10 at a House subcommittee on Health hearing.

However, they did not agree on what that labeling standard should be and whether it should require labeling of all GMO foods, or if, as proposed by the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (HR 4432), labeling should be mandatory only if FDA finds GMO foods to be unsafe or materially different from foods made with GM ingredients. (Read more about the bill HERE​.) 

The subcommittee gathered to consider the proposed legislation and FDA’s role in the regulation of GMO ingredients in response to increasing state efforts to pass GMO labeling legislation. In the past two years, legislators from 30 states introduced more than 70 bills to require GMO labeling.

While most of these efforts have not passed, and those that have are not yet in effect, several legislators worry that a mishmash of state GMO labeling laws would cause more problems than they would fix.

For example, subcommittee Chairman Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa) said at the hearing he is “concerned that a patchwork of 50 schemes would be unworkable and would confuse consumers.”​ He explained that consumers might not understand why a product sometimes has a disclosure that it is made with GMO ingredients and sometimes does not depending on where they are buying the food.

Likewise, consumers might misinterpret the disclosure that a product is made from GMO as less safe than products without the disclosure, even though FDA says it is confident that genetically modified ingredients available on the market now are just as safe as their conventional counterparts, he added.

Conflicting state regulations, if enacted, could cause significant disruption in the food chain if companies needed to build new infrastructure to comply, including establishing different supply chains, different storage containers for GMO and non-GMO ingredients and create processes to prevent cross-contamination between the two, such as shutting down and cleaning the equipment between different runs, said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.).

“You can bet that cost will be passed on to the consumer,”​ he added.

A recent Cornell University study concluded that mandatory GMO labeling would increase the cost of food by about $500 per family per year, which “can be an awful lot of money”​ to people who already are struggling to pay their grocery bills, added Pompeo.

Requiring farmers, manufacturers and suppliers to comply with multiple state standards also would reduce their profitability and their ability to continue to invest in production of much-needed food, he said.

He added that these are high prices to pay for a labeling provision that does not advance food safety, given that FDA already reviews GMO foods before they go to market.

While that process is voluntary, GMO food manufacturers comply with it because they know farmers will not buy GM seeds unless FDA has given the manufacturer a “no questions letter,”​ because they do not want to risk growing a product that FDA could later deem unsafe, Michael Landa, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at FDA, explained at the hearing.

Trying to comply with multiple conflicting state laws also could limit consumers’ food choices and food manufacturers’ distribution, Tom Dempsey, president and CEO of the Snack Food Association, said at the hearing.

He explained that business owners would have three options if state legislation went into effect: 1) they could comply and either absorb or pass on the associated costs to consumers; 2) they could halt sales in that state, which would restrict consumer access; or 3) they could reformulate without GMO ingredients.

Given that so many staple ingredients available in the U.S. are GMO, the third option of reformulating “is not realistic because there are not enough of these ingredients”​ that are non-GMO, he said.

EWG wants states’ rights preserved, raises concerns

Even Scott Faber, senior VP of the Environmental Working Group and head of the national Just Label It campaign which has invested heavily in state campaigns to pass GMO labeling legislation, acknowledged at the hearing that a national labeling standard is ideal for consumers and industry.

However, Faber said, if a national standard is not enacted or does not require GMO labeling, then states have a right to pass regulation to increase transparency into food processing and ingredients – a notion to which HR 4432 does not subscribe.

“We strongly support a national mandatory GMO disclosure system. We hope that President Obama will follow through on his 2007 commitment to require GMO labeling, and believe that FDA has a duty to act,”​ he said, adding: “But, in the absence of leadership from the FDA and the Obama Administration, states have properly given consumers the right to know and to prevent consumer confusion.”

He explained that currently many consumers confuse the terms “organic,” ​and “natural”​ with non-GMO. Many people think that “natural”​ means non-GMO, when in fact “organic”​ means non-GMO and products labeled as natural are allowed to have GM ingredients.

As one of only two opponents to HR 4432 who spoke at the hearing, Faber also countered several arguments made for not requiring GMO labeling and listed why HR 4432 was not his ideal solution to the GMO labeling debate.

Specifically he took issue with HR 4432 not requiring mandatory food labeling, but rather he said it codifies the current voluntary labeling system which he said does not work.

He also complained that HR 4432 fails to restrict “misleading”​ natural claims. The proposed legislation “merely requires the FDA to review the agency’s current definition for ‘natural’ and does not prohibit the use of the word ‘natural’ on foods containing genetically modified ingredients.”

Faber questioned the integrity of FDA’s voluntary GMO food ingredient review system, calling it flawed for allowing foods with genetically modified ingredients to be sold even if FDA has not completed safety evaluations.

Landa countered that the agency has not found any GMO ingredients to be unsafe and said that the market is self-regulating in that farmers would not buy GMO seeds unless they had been through the FDA review process.

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