Food fight! Congress, consumers battle over GMOs

Research Assistant Erin Hall extracts DNA from wheat for Monsanto, an agrochemical company using breeding and genetic modification to create herbicide-resistant crops, at its Chesterfield Village Research Center near St. Louis, Mo., Jan. 8. 2015. A fierce food fight has erupted in Congress over the labeling of genetically modified crops.
Research Assistant Erin Hall extracts DNA from wheat for Monsanto, an agrochemical company using breeding and genetic modification to create herbicide-resistant crops, at its Chesterfield Village Research Center near St. Louis, Mo., Jan. 8. 2015. A fierce food fight has erupted in Congress over the labeling of genetically modified crops. St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS

A fierce food fight has erupted in Congress over the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

At the center of the conflict is a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas that would block state and local laws from requiring food labels to disclose genetically engineered ingredients.

So far, three states – Vermont, Connecticut and Maine – have passed mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified food. At least fifteen other states are considering similar regulations.

Pompeo’s “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” would nix those laws and instead set up a voluntary nationwide labeling system overseen by the federal government.

The bipartisan bill has become the latest battleground over the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the U.S. food supply. GMOs have been around for 20 years. About 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, meaning that the crops have been artificially altered to use less water or resist pests.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization have deemed all GMOs on the market as safe. So has the federal government.

But as consumers grow increasingly concerned about what’s in their food – from antibiotics and hormones to additives and trans fats – pressure is mounting on the food industry and producers to be more transparent.

Consumer groups warn that Pompeo’s bill would rob Americans of their right to know what they’re eating. They launched a nationwide campaign against the legislation, renaming it the Deny Consumers the Right to Know Act, or DARK Act.

Pompeo, a conservative lawmaker from Wichita, Kan., says the prevailing scientific consensus that GMOs are safe makes mandatory labeling unnecessary at either the state or federal level.

“If we allow states to continue to irrationally produce laws that require a completely safe food to contain labels,” he said in an interview, “we risk raising the cost of food on those who can least afford it.”

Pompeo argues that food prices would spike if producers had to comply with dozens of different sets of laws that varied from state to state and city to city.

For now, there are no government-approved labels to let consumers in the U.S. know which foods are derived from GMOs.

Many companies advertise their food as “Non-GMO” through the Non-GMO Project, a private nonprofit started by retailers. The group uses testing and product segregation practices to verify that products with its butterfly seal contain less than 1 percent GMO ingredients.

Recently, some companies, such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Chipotle Mexican Grill, have responded to the consumer concerns about GMOs by removing genetically engineered ingredients from their food. The companies still serve dairy and meat products from animals who ate at least some genetically engineered feed, however.

People who want to be sure to avoid food derived from GMOs can buy organic. Organic foods, which must be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cannot contain genetically engineered ingredients by law. But an all-organic diet can be prohibitively pricey.

Consumer advocates say the lack of a government-mandated label for GMOs leaves many American shoppers confused.

“This fight is really a referendum on whether or not people should have basic information about their food and how its grown and whether that information should be included on the food package,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, an environmental and health advocacy organization that opposes Pompeo’s bill.

More narrowly, Faber said, it’s a debate over whether states can use their authority to provide basic information about food on the package.

Pompeo counters that his bill doesn’t infringe on state’s rights any more than Federal Aviation Administration rules do.

“We don’t let every state set their own rules for air traffic safety,” he pointed out.

“This is classic interstate commerce,” he added. “The founders understood that if we were going to have effective trade between the states that we couldn’t let cities and counties and states erect irrational protectionist barriers and that’s what these laws are.”

As the bill’s sponsor, Pompeo has come under withering attack from some of its most passionate opponents. His office has received a angry messages and phone calls, he said.

He’s also become a target for ridicule online. One meme depicts the congressman as Darth Vader, the Star Wars villain, over the words, “Big Food Strikes Back.” Another shows him as a marionette in clown makeup, accusing him of being a puppet for Koch Industries, a multinational corporation headquartered in Wichita, Kan., and Monsanto, the biotech company based in St. Louis, Mo.

Internet infamy aside, Pompeo is particularly irked by his adversaries’ argument that the bill would deny Americans’ “right to know” what’s in their food, and to make purchases accordingly.

“This is the most misunderstood thing,” he said. “I believe in freedom. I am as conservative as you can be...I have family members who will only purchase food that says its non- genetically engineered food. I would never do anything to prevent that.”

In the absence of a proven health or safety risk, the federal government has no business mandating labels for GMOs, Pompeo said.

“If it’s not safe, for goodness sakes don’t label it, ban it,” he said.

FDA policy states that there is “no basis” for concluding that bio-engineered foods are less safe than foods developed through traditional plant breeding.

The agency has issued guidance for voluntary labeling of bio-engineered foods, but the guidance is not binding.

Pompeo’s bill would allow those who want to label their products GMO-free to apply for certification through the USDA, which started certifying products as “organic” a decade ago. FDA would retain its authority to specify special labeling for GMOs if “necessary to protect health and safety.”

A rival bill introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this year by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California goes much further: It would ban the sale of food that contains genetically engineered ingredients unless that information is disclosed on the label. That bill is supported by Faber’s organization and other consumer groups.

Faber’s main concerns about GMOs center on how genetically engineered crops have caused the use of chemicals on farmland to skyrocket.

Many GMOs were designed to withstand specific herbicides, so farmers spraying a field could kill everything but the corn or soybeans they were growing. But weeds have grown resistant, too, leading to “superweeds” and increased chemical use, Faber said.

This “chemical treadmill” is especially troubling, Faber said, because the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced in March that it had found that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Then last month, the same agency said another weed killer known as 2,4-D, developed by Dow Chemical Co as an alternative to Roundup, was “possibly carcinogenic.”

Faber said food and biotech companies don’t want to have an open conversation with consumers about their technology.

“They’re afraid consumers will conclude this technology is doing more harm than good,” he said.

Pompeo’s bill is expected to get a vote in committee and on the floor of the U.S. House by the end of this month.

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007 @lindsaywise