House subcommittee hearing explores GMOs

Lawmakers discussed the safety, labeling and regulation of GMOs in food during a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health. Here's what happened.

Lawmakers discussed the safety, labeling and regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food during a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health.

The subcommittee's Chairman Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) stressed that there have not been any negative side effects or health risks associated with GMO crops and listed some of the benefits of these crops, from increased yields and nutrients to drought and pest resistance.

Michael Landa, the director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assured the subcommittee that the FDA is confident that the genetically engineered (GE) foods in the U.S. marketplace today are as safe as their conventional counterparts.

"FDA's consultation process for foods derived from GE plants provides for a rigorous food safety evaluation of GE foods," Landa testified. "As a result of these premarket consultations, we are confident that GE foods in the U.S. marketplace today are as safe as their conventional counterparts. The Agency, in cooperation with EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), will continue its oversight of new and emerging GE food products and will be vigilant in ensuring the safety and integrity of the food supply."

These points were supported by Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of California, Davis.

"There is no science-based reason to single out foods derived from and feeds crops that were developed using the GE breeding method for mandatory process-based labeling," Dr. Van Eenennaam testified. "Market-driven voluntary labeling measures are currently providing interested consumers with choices to purchase products produced from crops developed using conventional plant breeding technologies."

Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, testified that it isn't necessarily a safety issue as much as a consumer right to know issue. His group is not seeking a warning label, but a modest disclosure to convey factual information.

"Consumers simply want to know what is in the food they are buying and how it was produced," Faber said.

Federal vs. state policy
During the hearing the subcommittee discussed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 (H.R. 4432), introduced in April by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS). The bill would prohibit genetically-modified food ingredients from being introduced into interstate commerce before the FDA performed a safety review; such a requirement already exists under current law. The bill would also authorize FDA to require labeling of genetically modified food if the safety review revealed:

  • a material difference between the genetically-modified product and its comparable marketed food, and
  • that disclosure of such difference is necessary to protect health and safety or to prevent labeling from being false or misleading.

Under H.R. 4432, any labeling of the presence or absence of bioengineering would have to meet a specified set of federal standards that would preempt any state-specific regulation. At the time of the hearing, the bill was cosponsored by 34 Republicans and three Democrats.

Kate Webb of the Vermont House of Representatives was critical of the H.R. 4432 contending that the bill does not create a national mandatory GE labeling system.

"Instead, H.R. 4432 codifies the broken voluntary GE labeling system and robs states like Vermont of the ability to inform and respond to our citizens who need this information," Webb said.

This position was echoed in a Dec. 9 letter by Consumers Union to the subcommittee chairman and ranking Democrat. Consumers Union urged the lawmakers to oppose the bill because it would prohibit states from establishing mandatory labeling of GMO products, allow GMO products to be labeled "natural," and continue the current FDA policy of voluntary GMO labeling.

On the other hand, Thomas Dempsey, president and CEO of the Snack Food Association, expressed support for H.R. 4432 because of the many potential burdens created by the possibility of state-level GMO labeling requirements. He argued that this would ultimately lead to increased costs that could drive food companies out of business or increase food prices for consumers while potentially limiting their options in the marketplace. 

Rep. Pitts asserted that the labeling of GMO products is a federal issue and expressed concern about the possibility of a patchwork of state regulations that would increase costs and decrease choice for consumers. This concern was echoed by other representatives on the subcommittee who cosponsored H.R. 4432 as well as by the subcommittee's Ranking Democrat Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ).

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) was the only subcommittee member who expressed support for allowing states to pass their own laws on GMO labeling in order to best meet the needs of the state's residents. Waxman has announced his retirement from the House and will be replaced next January by Representative-elect Ted Lieu.

AHPA advocates federal voluntary labeling standard
The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) supports the broadly expressed consumer interest in making informed purchasing decisions when it comes to GE/GMO foods. AHPA's Board of Trustees adopted a policy in 2013 to advocate for a federal regulation for the voluntary disclosure when there is an absence of genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients in food and dietary supplements. In adopting this policy, the AHPA board acknowledged that a single federal regulation is more practical than a patchwork of state labeling requirements and AHPA continues to work to enact this regulation through federal legislation or through rulemaking. 

"AHPA looks to the voluntary labeling regulation established by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 as a successful market-driven model for informing consumers of certain food characteristics," said AHPA President Michael McGuffin. "Some modification to the National Organic Program, with jurisdiction by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, may be the shortest route to a federal regulatory system that would allow consumers to know whether the foods they choose to purchase and consume are free of GMO ingredients."

In addition, AHPA adopted a guidance policy in 2007 that "supports labeling of consumer goods to identify any ingredients that are herbal raw agricultural products knowingly and intentionally cultivated with GMO technologies ... in a manner that assures that consumers are informed that the ingredient was cultivated with GMO technology."

Additional information about the hearing is available on the House Committee website.


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