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Vermont Doubles Down: Representative Testifies Before Congress Against Federal GMO Labeling Bill

As we've explored in past posts, Congress is currently considering a bill that aims to harmonize the patchwork of state efforts at regulating GMO labeling by placing such regulation firmly within FDA's jurisdiction. Dubbed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 4432), this bill would give FDA exclusive authority to regulate the labeling of products containing GMOs, effectively preempting state legislation in this field.

This past Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing to consider that bill as well as the broader question of whether and how the federal government should regulate GMO labeling. Members of the Committee heard testimony from six witnesses on both sides of the debate over the course of three hours.

On the side against GMO labeling, perhaps the most influential witnesses were Michael Landa, the director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Tom Dempsey, the President and CEO of the Snack Food Association. The most notable voice on the other side: Representative Kate Webb of Vermont, the only state to have passed a GMO labeling law that does not depend on other states to act before going into effect. The contrasting testimony from these witnesses vividly illustrates the poles of this debate, and the questions posed by the Committee give a meaningful glimpse into the factors that may motivate Congressional action.

More highlights from the hearing below:

  • Landa testified that, although FDA had no official position on the bill, the agency did not currently consider a GMO labeling a priority. As Landa explained, GMO labeling is not closely related to the agency's core missions: ensuring food safety, and preventing misleading labeling. Despite 20 years of research, FDA has found no evidence of food safety risks linked to GMOs.
  • Nor, according to Landa, would a GMO labeling requirement further FDA's responsibility of ensuring that information affirmatively displayed on food labels is not false or misleading. As Landa put it, "We don't require labeling based on method of production alone because we have found it is not material to safety or nutritional composition."
  • When asked by the Committee whether consumers' "right to know" justified a labeling requirement, Landa acknowledged the concern but noted that FDA is generally reluctant to regulate on this basis without a clear "limiting principle": "If the question is the public's right to know, I'm not sure how you answer what people do not have a right to know."
  • Dempsey stressed in his testimony the burden that food producers doing business across states would face if every state were allowed to adopt its own idiosyncratic labeling requirements. Given the sheer volume of foods that now contain GMOs, he noted, the more feasible route is for individual producers to decide whether to advertise their products as "GMO-Free" or "Non-GMO."
  • One of the lead sponsors of Vermont's controversial labeling law, Representative Webb took a diametrically different view in her testimony, stressing consumers' right to know whether their food contained GMOs. Conceding that GMOs are not inherently unsafe, Webb argued that the majority of consumers still value such information and would prefer labeling, citing country-of-origin labeling for meat as an example of a regulatory requirement that, while not strictly health-related, was justified by consumers' right to know.
  • While calling for a national system of mandatory labeling, Webb argued that the specific federal bill at issue was a step in the wrong direction, as it robbed states like Vermont of their ability to respond to their citizens by passing such legislation directly.

By the end of the panel, the growing consensus among the Committee members was that a uniform system of national regulation--whether for or against GMO labeling--was preferable to a "patchwork" of potentially inconsistent regulations by different states. What form that national standard will take, however, remains to be seen. We will continue to monitor the status of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, as well as other developments in the field of GMO regulation.

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Joshua Foust