On Tuesday, July 14, the House Committee on Agriculture voted and approved H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015!
The bill, which was introduced to the Committee in March by Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas and Representative G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, was passed through the Committee with bipartisan support.
You can read the full bill here. (If you’d rather not, continue reading and I’ll break it down for you.)
What Does the Act Do?
The overall goal of the Act is to create a unitary, voluntary, and national standard for GMO labeling.
To that end, let’s dive a little deeper…
First, the Act creates a definition of what is a GMO. To meet the definition of a “bioengineered organism” it has to be the following: (1) a plant (or a seed, a fruit, or any other part thereof); (2) the organism contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and (3) the modification could not otherwise be obtained using conventional breeding techniques.
The legislation contains a notification requirement for any GMO developer hoping to put their product on the market. The notification requires that the developer inform the FDA (1) the basis for the developer’s determination that the food produced is as safe as one or more comparable non-GMO foods; and (2) whether any other federal agency has conducted a review of the new GMO and any conclusion reached by that review.
In other words, the developer needs to show the FDA that there has been scientific review of the new GMO which shows that the product is just as safe as its non-GMO counterpart. For example, Round-Up Ready sweet corn is just as safe as non-GMO sweet corn. In addition, the developer has to show that other federal agencies have reviewed the product and supporting science. Right now, GMOs are reviewed by the USDA, EPA, and (sometimes) the FDA. In order to ensure the process goes smoothly, a developer is always able to pre-consult with the FDA to assure the notification is successful.
Now, the FDA may impose a label on the new GMO if it determines that there is a material difference between a GMO food its non-GMO counterpart and such a label is necessary to protect health and safety, or to prevent the food from being labeled in such a way that is false or misleading. Important to note here is that the fact that a GMO is, in fact, a GMO is not enough to constitute a “material difference.” In other words, you can’t require a GMO label just because the product is a GMO!
So, in order for the FDA to mandate a label for a GMO product, the new GMO product would have to be considered “material different” from its non-GMO counterpart. The legislation defines a “material difference” to mean a difference that: (1) significantly alters the characteristics such that the common or usual name no longer adequately describes the food; or (2) results in a significantly different nutritional property in the food; or (3) results in food containing an allergen that consumers would not expect. There you have it – those are the only instances where the FDA would have authority to mandate a GMO have a label marking it as a GMO product.
Products meeting certain requirements, which I will skip discussing here, may be voluntarily labeled as GMO-free or non-GMO. In turn, if a food producer wanted to label their product as a GMO, it would also be allowed to do that.
Interestingly enough, one of the more confusing aspects of the state labeling requirements was whether or not animal products should be considered GMO. The answer to this varied from one state to another, which had the potential to create a lot of confusion for consumers, not to mention difficulties for any producer of animal products selling in different states! The Act avoids this issue. If a cow eats GMO feed does that make its milk a GMO product? According to the Act, no. It does not meet the definition of a GMO, because it is not a plant or a part of a plant. For such products, the food would still be allowed to carry a label indicating it is GMO-free.
However, the biggest and most important point is that it preempts any state or local labeling requirements for GMO products. That means that if a state attempts to pass any legislation that requires GMO products to have a label, it won’t be enforceable. Too bad, Vermont!
But, Aren’t We Opposed to Labeling GMOs?
Yes, I am opposed to GMO labeling…and you should be too!
However, this bill reaches perhaps the best solution to the state-by-state labeling matrix that is currently being set up. For example, Vermont will have mandatory labeling requirements for any foods containing GMO ingredients next year! Any other state could also pass such mandatory labeling requirements…but it doesn’t have to be identical to Vermont’s labeling requirements. In fact, take a look at the legislation that have been proposed thus far in each state, and you’ll see that there are significant differences.
Can you imagine how difficult and expensive it would be if a food producer had to comply with different GMO labeling requirements in different states? For a national or regional brand, that would no doubt increase costs, confuse consumers, and be a giant mess.
The USDA has started a program where companies can obtain a “GMO-free” label for their products, and that will have to now comply with the rules of this legislation. A voluntary label that companies can chose to put on their products is much, much better than a patchwork of conflicting state laws, or any mandatory GMO label.
Admittedly, I don’t support labels on GMO foods that indicate the product either contains genetically modified crops or does not contain genetically modified crops. It doesn’t matter and, quite frankly, a label makes it seem like it does. This legislation avoids all of that by barring mandatory GMO labels except in those very specific circumstances. It also gives meaning to a GMO-free label by creating a straightforward and uniform national standard.
It doesn’t mean I like to see “GMO-free” on a product, but that is probably the best option.
What Happens Next?
Next up, the bill will head to the House of Representatives for a vote!
But really, the work has just begun. While this bill may have an easier time in the House than the Senate, those opposed to GMO labeling will need to step up to the plate and help get this passed. Already, activists are angry with this legislation and promising a ridiculous fight will ensue. I will be posting information to help you contact your representatives in Congress to encourage them to support this legislation when it comes to a vote.