WASHINGTON — Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo is pushing a bill in Congress that would shift responsibility for any labeling of genetically modified foods to the hands of the federal government, potentially stopping the efforts underway in many states to mandate labels on such foods.
Pompeo, who represents an agricultural district in south-central Kansas, said that all evidence to date indicates genetically modified foods are safe. If there does need to be labeling, he said, there should be uniform standards for it, rather than a patchwork of laws and regulations among the states.
“What we can say for sure is that biotechnology has made food safer and more abundant,” Pompeo, a Republican, said in a conference call Wednesday. And the bevy of proposals around the country will make it “enormously difficult to operate a food system.”
Proponents of labels for genetically modified foods jumped on the proposal as a favor to the Grocery Manufacturers Association and agricultural corporations that make food and genetically modified seeds for use by America’s farmers.
The issue of labeling foods that contain genetically modified ingredients has taken hold in states around the country, and more than 25 now have ballot measures or legislative initiatives underway.
Advocates for labeling say they would prefer that the federal Food and Drug Administration take the lead, requiring that companies put labels on food packages to give consumers a heads-up that ingredients inside are made with genetically modified organisms. Those might include substances such as corn, which is widely used in processed foods and more often than not has been genetically modified to help counter pests and boost yields.
But so far, the FDA hasn’t agreed to do so. It says that foods from genetically engineered plants must only meet the same safety requirements as foods from traditionally bred plants. And while the agency said it recognizes the strong interest that many consumers have in knowing whether a food was produced using genetic engineering, it supports only voluntary labeling.
That has shifted the battle to the states, where advocates of labeling are hopeful they can accomplish in legislatures and voting booths what hasn’t been accomplished in Washington.
Pompeo’s bill would prohibit states from requiring labels. In addition, it would require that new foods produced with genetically modified organisms be submitted to the FDA for review. If the FDA determines there is a difference between the genetically modified food and non-modified food and that disclosing that is “necessary to protect health and safety,” the FDA can require a label.
But “the use of bioengineering does not, by itself, constitute a material difference,” the bill says.
Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the advocacy group Center for Food Safety, said the issue is one of a “fundamental right to know” – that consumers should have the opportunity to know what is in the food they are eating, as they do in dozens of other countries.
Given the recent pressure for state-level action, O’Neil said the agriculture and food industries “want to cut this conversation off immediately.”
“They see labeling as not a matter of if, but when,” he said.