Poll after poll shows that consumers want the right to know what’s in their food and how it’s produced. Because our food choices have such a significant impact on our lives, this is a trend that should be welcomed, not frustrated.
So it’s disappointing that some members of Congress, led by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., are fighting to deny Americans the right to know whether their food contains genetically modified ingredients.
Recently, I testified in front of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health that we need a national GMO labeling system that works for farmers, food companies and consumers. The subcommittee hearing was to discuss HR 4432, Pompeo’s bill. It’s been dubbed the Denying Americans the Right Know Act by opponents because it does not provide for a mandatory national labeling system. Moreover, it would preempt Vermont and other states that have done what the federal government has failed to do and given their citizens the right to know what’s in their food.
Whether Congress decides to block GMO labeling is about more than the right to know what we’re buying and eating. It’s also about consumer confusion. About 60 percent of consumers believe foods labeled “natural” are GMO-free. This misleading term means Americans can’t use their buying power to reflect their values.
GMO labeling would help clear up this confusion. Advocates of GMO labeling aren’t seeking a warning label. We’re simply asking for a factual, non-judgmental disclosure on the back of the package.
The Food and Drug Administration already has the authority to require such disclosure and has used it in the past to address this kind of consumer confusion — but not in this case. In the absence of FDA leadership, states should be free to require mandatory disclosure.
Congress has long recognized a role for the states in food labeling, and federal law clearly does not preempt state-mandated GMO labeling. Many states have adopted their own labeling requirements — ranging from grading butter quality to adding “sell-by” dates — to help consumers make informed choices.
Some opponents of GMO labeling claim that disclosing genetically modified ingredients will increase food prices. But every shopper knows food companies routinely change their labels to make new claims and highlight innovations.
Other opponents say GMO labeling will create the need for costly farm and food systems to segregate genetically modified foods from those that are not. But those sorts of systems have been in place for decades — all the way from the farm to the grain elevator to the processor to the supermarket — to address safety issues about allergens in foods and to meet the growing demand for non-GMO and organic choices.
Finally, some inevitably say we need GMO crops to feed the world. But no one is seeking a ban on GMO crops. And many farm groups, including the National Farmers Union, support GMO labeling. It’s also worth noting that we’ve run the GMO experiment for 20 years, and so far yields of conventional crops have kept pace with the yields of genetically modified crops.
Pompeo’s bill narrows the FDA’s ability to craft a GMO labeling system, weakens the flawed GMO review process, fails to restrict misleading “natural” claims and preempts state laws that actually protect and inform consumers. The bill also enshrines the existing voluntary labeling system that has created so much confusion.
Transparency is an inherently American value, and citizens simply want the right to know what’s in their food. It’s time to give them the same rights as consumers in 64 other countries.
Scott Faber is senior vice president of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group.