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Congress, Media Focused on Biotech Food Labeling

July 21, 2015
Media coverage of the biotech food labeling debate is at a fever pitch as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599) is poised to see action on the floor of the House of Representatives this week. Among the highlights:

Charles Conner, former United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and current president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives wrote an op-ed in RollCall:
GMOs have been around for decades, helping farmers to grow more crops more sustainably–using fewer pesticides and protecting the land and water. And despite the scare tactics of alarmists, the fact is that scientists, including all major global health organizations and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have concluded that GMOs are as safe as any other food.

Yet activists continue to prey on consumer fears, and are pushing state laws mandating that foods containing GM ingredients be specially labeled.

…The best way to protect our national food system is to implement a federal policy that provides American consumers with accurate, science-based information while providing consistent national standards for farmers and manufacturers.

Pam Bailey, President and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, wrote a similar op-ed for The Hill:
Mandating GMO labels will raise consumer concerns over the product’s safety. The average American may not be familiar with the scientific facts, and will assume that a product is labeled because it is not as safe as its GMO-free equivalent. Make no mistake: this is what the ‘right to know’ campaigners want. Their goal is to scare Americans away from GM food using a deceiving label, and they are trying to get laws passed to do just that.

…Historically, the government has limited labeling requirements to information that is essential for consumers to know. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group, recently testified before Congress, “If we mandated everything on a label, the consumers don’t know what is the most critical information…The things that are most critical are either safety information or nutritional information. This doesn’t qualify there.”

Steve Kopperud, executive vice president of Policy Directions Inc., a Washington, D.C. government affairs/specialty communications company, wrote a commentary for Brownfield Ag News:
The issue of whether it’s necessary to label foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients is one of those issues where Congress should step in to provide a federal answer to the question. The food industry can’t operate with two dozen or more different labeling schemes as devised by individual states without jacking up prices to cover the cost of labeling/logistics and confusing consumers.

At the same time, the issue should be straightforward: FDA, USDA or both – depending on which controls which food product label – is given authority by Congress to preempt the states when it comes to what’s on a food label.

Rep. Frank Lucas wrote a piece for the Stillwater News Press looking at the gap between public perception and scientific consensus on whether genetically modified (GM) foods were safe to eat:
While some local communities have hastily banned or issued restrictions on GM products, federal policy must remain grounded in science. That’s why I believe we should have a uniform national policy on labeling. Consumers should have access to the same information about GM products that they have for organic foods today. These steps would uphold our commitment to food safety and meet consumers’ demand for diverse and affordable foods.

Joseph Perrone, chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, wrote a piece for the Knoxville News Sentinel urging readers that there is no reason to fear eating genetically modified crops:
Despite the global interest in genetically modified foods and millions of dollars in research funding spent in recent decades, there has not been a single credible study showing a link between GMOs and human health problems published in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, environmental activists cling to widely discredited and retracted studies to support their anti-GMO beliefs.

It's easy for activists to scare consumers, even without solid research to back up their claims. Most Americans don't even know what GMO stands for or how ubiquitous GMOs are in our food supply (93 percent of U.S. corn and 94 percent of soybeans). But polling shows a growing number of consumers have heard activists' anti-GMO messages and erroneously assume these foods aren't as safe to eat. That's why the push to mandate special labels on GMOs isn't as simple as ‘Just Label It.’

Unless those labels also explain that research shows genetically modified foods are nutritionally equivalent to their conventional counterparts and their safety is widely supported by scientists, they don't tell consumers anything useful.

Mike Barnett, Director of Publications for the Texas Farm Bureau, wrote a piece for The Record explaining “5 Reasons to Support the GMO Labeling Act”:

  1. Fear. The legislation takes the fear out of food. Anti-GMO advocates scare the bejeebers out of consumers in pursuit of their goals. The proposed bill reinforces the existing requirements applied to labeling food products developed through genetic engineering. Misleading labels are not allowed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If a claim is not backed by facts, no label required. Labeling foods solely because they were developed through biotech breeding methods misleads consumers into thinking the product is less safe.

  2. Health. So far, the most significant advances in biotechnology have been made in insect or herbicide resistance to plants. This helps the farmer grow food more efficiently, but is not something consumers readily identify with. But look at what’s in the pipeline. Plants that produce oils with less trans fats. Improved vitamin content in foods. Lowered risk of carcinogens and foodborne illnesses. It’s all achievable. But only if we embrace the technology.

  3. Assurance. Certified organic. It’s a government program with guidelines that have to be met by the grower that gives consumers assurance their food has been raised without synthetic chemicals. The proposed legislation uses certified organic as a model for GMO-free rules and regulations. It will provide consumers the same assurance.

  4. Choice. The American food system is built around choice from conventional to organic. Voluntary labeling differentiates markets. It can work as assurance for the customer and as an incentive for those who want to pursue those markets—without imposing additional costs on everyone else.

  5. Cost. As many as 175 laws have been introduced by GMO activist groups in more than 30 states in the last few years. Those laws could be costly to consumers, farmers, retailers and processors. Studies have shown that additional costs could range from $500 to $1,500 a year for families. That’s not chicken feed.