GMO Labeling Battle Gets Fresh Kick-Start in Washington

A leaked discussion draft by the Grocery Manufacturers Association suggests creating a national (albeit voluntary) standard for GMO labeling in the U.S., but activists say the association is distorting the issue.

A leaked discussion draft by the Grocery Manufacturers Association suggests creating a national (albeit voluntary) labeling standard for foods containing genetically modified organisms, but activists say the association is clouding the issue.

The fight over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods has long been contentious, but a grocery association’s most recent move has ratcheted up the heat.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) says its latest efforts, first reported on by Politico this week, are focused on creating a nationwide GMO labeling standard. But environmentalists and organic food groups say the association has an ulterior motive.

Standard, But Voluntary

In the discussion draft [PDF] acquired by Politico, GMA suggests creating a national, voluntary labeling program with increased oversight of the industry by the Food and Drug Administration. The association contends that having a single federal standard will lead to better results than a series of initiatives at the state level.

“We believe that it’s important for Congress to engage and provide FDA with the ability to have a national standard,” GMA’s Louis Finkel told the news outlet. “A 50-state patchwork of regulations is irresponsible.”

While efforts to pass GMO labeling laws have failed in California and Washington state, fresh pushes are already underway in other states, including Colorado and Oregon. The campaign against the failed ballot initiatives was marked by millions of dollars in political spending, which got the GMA in trouble in Washington over donor disclosure issues.

The move to back a national standard comes on the heels of another by GMA, first reported by the New York Times last month, in which it asked the FDA to allow foods that contain GMOs to be labeled as “natural.” Such a rule would conflict with a recently enacted Connecticut law requiring GMO labeling and prohibiting the use of the term “natural” on packaging of foods containing GMOs.

Activists Push Back

In the wake of the leak of the GMA document, environmentalist and food activist organizations have questioned the association’s motives.

The Environmental Working Group suggested that GMA’s proposed voluntary standard would limit future efforts to implement mandatory labeling at the state level. “Clearly, this is an industry that will stop at nothing to hide from its customers basic information on what’s in their food,” EWG President Ken Cook said in a press release. “If this proposal were to become law, it would make it impossible for any state to require labeling of [genetically engineered] foods, even if an overwhelming majority of its residents demand it.”

The Organic Consumers Association, meanwhile, is using the issue to encourage its members to organize further: “If the FDA proposes a watered-down federal GMO labeling bill, or a rubber-stamp for the fraudulent industry practice of labeling GMO-tainted foods as ‘natural’ or ‘all natural,’ we must raise holy hell, and mobilize as never before.”

And Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, suggested that GMA’s aim was to keep consumers in the dark: “It is clear that the Grocery Manufacturers Association will do anything in their power to keep the public from knowing what is in the food they are buying. We and our allies in the food movement will work to make sure that the public’s right to know is protected and that this bill, if introduced, is dead on arrival.”

One Legislator’s Take

The activists have some congressional support: Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) both have introduced GMO labeling bills within the last year. DeFazio, whose bill has the support of the Natural Products Association, said the GMA’s plan could backfire.

“If they start to move a bill that does the opposite [of labeling that has been called for by consumers], they may not like the results,” he told Politico.

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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