A New Food Labeling Faceoff

The California Senate Health Committee recently approved Senate Bill 1381, which would require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. This action is triggering new flows of facts and opinions by interest groups.

This bill renews the long-running debate between consumer groups and pesticide corporations and large-scale food producers. Californians for GE Food Labeling, representing many consumer groups, claims that grocery shoppers need to know what they are buying. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, representing the food industry, claims that labeling GE foods would be expensive and misleading.

This debate dates from 1992, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that GE foods were “substantially equivalent” to conventionally grown foods and therefore do not require labeling.

Ten years later, Congress created the National Organic Program (NOP) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The NOP ruled that GE foods do not meet NOP standards and could not be labeled as “organic.”

According to SB 1381, more than 90% of members of the public want labeling of GE foods. Maine and Connecticut have passed limited laws requiring GE food labeling, and 20 other states are considering similar laws. Voters in California and Washington have considered GE food labeling measures, but the food industry waged massive campaigns opposing the measures and both failed by very small margins.

Sixty-four countries already have laws mandating labeling of GE foods.

Two other Senate committees—Agriculture and Judiciary—will debate SB 1381before the full Senate votes on it. While the bill moves through the California Senate, the California Assembly could consider a similar bill. Both bodies would have to agree on some version of this legislation before it could become law in California. This process could be lengthy, with vigorous arguments for and against.

At the federal level, a year ago, Senator Barbara Boxer and many co-signers introduced The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, but it hasn’t advanced at all.

The FDA has proposed regulatory guidelines for voluntary labeling of GE foods. Consumer groups have dismissed this approach as not helpful.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently recommended federal legislation that would allow voluntary labeling of GE foods, allow describing them as “natural,” and preempt state laws that have different requirements.

Meanwhile, grocery shoppers could either buy only certified organic foods, or simply ignore the issue. Home gardeners could buy seeds from “Safe Seed Pledge” companies (listed by The Council for Responsible Genetics) and grow their own non-GE foods.

Food policies have become complicated!

More to come.

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