Bill Banning State GMO Food Labels Reintroduced in Congress

Published November 24, 2015

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) has reintroduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 to prevent individual states from requiring labels indicating whether a food was genetically modified (GMO).

“GMOs are safe and have a number of important benefits for people and our planet,” Pompeo said.

The bill would also tighten the standards companies must use to designate their food as GMO-free: Crops must not be planted with bioengineered seeds, and animals must not be fed bioengineered food.

“I think people have a right to know what they are eating,” said Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University. “Ethical food companies, restaurants, and groceries should tell them. I don’t see safety as an issue for GMOs, but if people want information, give it to them. Government should not have to mandate [labels]. The safety data doesn’t support mandatory labeling. But respect for customers does. So label voluntarily.”

Companies designating their products as GMO-free appeal to some consumers who fear GMOs pose environmental or human health threats.

Caplan says scientific evidence indicates GMOs are harmless.

A study published in the Journal of Animal Science examined more than 100 billion animals before 1996, when animal feed was 100 percent non-GMO, and after, when animal feed was 90 percent GMO or more. The study found GMOs completely safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMOs. 

‘Unwise, Faustian Bargain’

Pompeo says he intends his bill to protect GMO foods from state-specific bans, but some GMO proponents worry it might inadvertently empower anti-GMO crusaders at the federal level because it gives the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to establish national standards and regulations for genetically modified foods and gives the Department of Agriculture full discretion over how to implement the law. Proponents fear the Department of Agriculture or an FDA director hostile to GMOs could use their power to impose nationwide restrictions or unjustified regulatory hurdles on GMO development and use.

Henry Miller, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says mandatory labeling requirements “fail every test: Scientific, economic, legal, and common sense. Genetic modification is not a meaningful risk ‘category,’ any more than all the things that can be assembled with a screwdriver is a meaningful risk category, so labeling requirements are pointless. It has absolutely nothing to do with risk. Moreover, mandatory labeling is expensive to industry and consumers.

“HR 1599 is an unwise, Faustian bargain,” Miller said. “The provision that would preempt state and local mandatory labeling is now moot, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. [The Supreme Court decision] gives the agriculture and biotechnology communities increased confidence that process-specific food-labeling initiatives are likely to be deemed unconstitutional by the federal courts.

“Another provision of the bill is awful: It would create new, compulsory FDA review of genetically engineered food plants, which is the last thing we need,” Miller said. “These products are already excessively and unscientifically regulated.” 

Tiffany Taylor ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.