By Martin Levin
On July 14, H.R. 1599 was reported favorably out of the House Agriculture Committee on a voice vote, and is expected to reach a floor vote within the week. Although titled the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” this bill actually codifies quarter-century old, agribusiness-friendly practices concerning the safety testing of genetically modified foods. It also preempts all state laws mandating labeling of GMOs without enacting a labeling requirement at the federal level.
Regarding safety, H.R. 1599 simply directs the FDA to continue its current “consultation process” for the review of genetically engineered plants intended for use in foods. That process was established in a 1992 FDA policy statement. In that process, a GMO developer submits a summary of the results of the developer’s own research in support of the developer’s conclusion that the plant or food is safe. FDA is relegated to review of the summary and expression of any objections to the developer’s conclusion based on the data submitted. H.R. 1599 does not mandate that the FDA independently reach its own determination whether the food is safe or unsafe. Nor does H.R. 1599 grant to FDA the authority to require that all research conducted by the developer be submitted, in its complete form. Nor does it provide for public input into the review process.
H.R. 1599 also adopts agribusiness-friendly voluntary labeling of genetically engineered foods, and expressly preempts all state efforts to enact mandatory labeling. By codifying voluntary labeling at the federal level, and prohibiting it at the state level, H.R. 1599 insures that the status quo remains unchanged--no GMO food will be labeled as such. This, despite polls that show overwhelming consumer desire for GMO labeling.
Voluntary labeling of non-GMO foods will also continue under H.R. 1599, although the bill does mandate the promulgation of uniform standards for what may be labeled as non-GMO. The labeling certification program is fee-based. Since GMO marketers will not be rushing to participate in the labeling program, non-GMO companies will bear the cost of the government’s labeling program. Hence, the bill helps GMO producers maintain their competitive economic advantage when it comes to food transparency (or lack thereof) in the marketplace. In another potential gift to GMO marketers, H.R. 1599 also gives discretion to the FDA to permit GMOs to be labeled as “natural.”
Yet another agribusiness-friendly provision prohibits any State or locality from “directly or indirectly establish[ing]...as to any food in interstate commerce any requirement with respect to genetically engineered plants for use in food....” It can be expected that agribusiness will argue that this provision strips states and localities of any and all authority to protect small organic and other non-GMO farmers from the environmental impacts of GMO crop cultivation, such as cross-pollination from GMOs and the spread of so-called “super weeds.”
Passage of H.R. 1599 became a high priority item for many large food trade associations, as well as GMO manufacturers such as Monsanto, after a federal court turned back agribusiness efforts to stop Vermont from enforcing its first-in-the-nation law requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods. Although an appeal is pending, the Vermont law is slated to go into effect next summer. GMO marketers will need lead time to put properly labeled packaging in place, and they no doubt would like to avoid implementing such changes by winning legislatively what they have to date been unable to win through court challenge. However, as can be seen from the above, the bill goes far beyond the labeling issue. It codifies a safety review process that relies exclusively on industry-generated data to support industry-desired conclusions, without mandating independent determination of safety by the FDA.