The House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFE) on Thursday by a 275-150 vote. While the margin of victory was significant, the bill has been contentiously opposed, with detractors calling it the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK) Act. Among other provisions geared to classify food products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO), the bill will void legislation passed by Vermont, which would make GMO labeling mandatory for food items in that state. Instead the SAFE Act, which has already been applauded by the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), will create a federal standard with voluntary labeling for foods that contain GMO ingredients. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will also create a written certification program for companies who wish their products to be labeled GMO free. Despite the fact that the bill pre-empts existing GMO legislation, many “Blue Dog” Democrats backed the bill due to its establishment of national standards. Most Democrats, however, believe that the bill is a strike against transparency.
The bill’s author, Mike Pompeo (R-KS), believes that the Vermont law, which is scheduled to go into effect July, 2016, and other laws passed conditionally in Maine and Connecticut will raise food costs. Pompeo defended his bill saying “Precisely zero pieces of credible evidence have been presented that foods produced with biotechnology pose any risk to our health and safety. We should not raise prices on consumers based on the wishes of a handful of activists.” The primary activist in this matter, however, has been the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). The trade group that represents over 300 food companies essentially wrote the legislation in an attempt to quell the growing wave of state legislation requiring labeling. GMA cited a Cornell University study which said state-level GMO labeling mandates could cost a family of four as much $500 more per year in grocery costs and it would cost food makers millions of dollars to re-label the products.
Opponents of the bill, however, find that study to be ridiculous. Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have been the two leading opponents of the bill in the House. DeLauro said about GMA’s argument, “American families deserve to know what they are eating and feeding to their children. The FDA already requires clear labeling of over 3,000 ingredients, additives and food processes. GMOs should be no different.” Vermont Democrat Peter Welch asked, “What’s the problem with letting consumers know what they are buying?” Both DeLauro and DeFazio also presented amendments that were voted down. DeLauro’s would have banned companies from using the word “natural” on food that contains genetically-engineered plants. DeFazio’s amendment would have required U.S. companies that label their products for GMOs in foreign countries to label them the same way domestically. The amendments were defeated 163-262 and 123-303 respectively. California Democrat Jared Huffman also had an amendment defeated by a 196-227 margin that would have given Native American tribes the authority to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMO crops on their territory.
Although the bill’s debate was contentious, the centrist Blue Dog Coalition announced their support for the bill just before it was introduced for a vote, although cautiously. They released a statement saying, “A patchwork of confusing state specific laws related to GMO labeling risks further confusion in the marketplace and rising food costs. However, we also understand that consumers have the right to know if food is GMO-free and this bill provides a uniform standard for those products through a USDA administered program.” The SAFE Act will allow the FDA to also establish a national standard for products labeled “natural.” Despite the bill’s passage, many expect it to languish in the Senate, although the associations that support the measure have a significant lobbying presence on Capitol Hill. It is also unknown if President Obama will sign the measure. The administration is in the process of reorganizing the complicated GMO regulatory process, and despite the objections to the legislation, it may help to clarify the direction of the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA’s division of responsibilities. Currently, about 90 percent of corn, soybean, and cotton crops have some kind of foreign genes injected into their DNA to make them more resistant to herbicides.
Digital Journal –Business Wire
Reuters – Carey Gillam
The Hill (blog) – Lydia Wheeler and Christina Marcos
U.S. News & World Report/AP – Mary Clare Jalonick