Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Health Wednesday peppered a senior U.S. Food and Drug Administration official and a group of agriculture and food industry stakeholders with questions on the merits of a national GMO labeling policy, finding a general consensus that national – rather than state-by-state – labeling jurisdiction is preferred, though elements of an actual labeling policy remain a concern.
The hearing included two panels, with FDA's Director for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Michael Landa being the sole witness on the first.
An FDA issue?
In question was the FDA's role in regulation of genetically modified food ingredients, an issue brought forth earlier this year by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., sponsor of H.R. 4432, a bill to direct the FDA to review GMOs for safety and prohibit states from implementing statewide mandatory affirmative labeling laws.
Lawmakers asked Landa to address issues the FDA might encounter if it were asked to label GMO foods and to share research on GMO safety.
They later used information gathered in Landa's testimony to stimulate response on states' ability to research and implement labeling systems, and whether GMO foods, when considering science-based information to-date, warrant a label.
"We do not believe [GMOs] as a class, that there's any question about safety, based on the reviews we have done," Landa said. The FDA, he said, grounds labeling decisions on products' impacts on safety and nutrition.
Following concerns of some Congress members and discussion that genetic modification of plants used to produce food products represented a new area of science, Landa responded: "It's decades old."
Right to know
Additional question topics included the FDA's authority to label, and the repercussions of including GMO labels on packaging. Subcommittee members and panelists, however, continued to run into a common question: is the idea of labeling based on safety and nutrition or a consumer's right to know?
Related: Vermont Passes GMO Labeling Bill
While many witnesses on the hearing's second panel agreed that consumers do have a right to know what's in their food, Alison Van Eenennaam, a University of California, Davis extension specialist in the area of animal genomics and biotechnology, said GMO labeling better answers how the food was produced, not what's "in" it.
"There is no science-based reason to single out foods derived from and feed crops that were developed using the GE breeding method for mandatory process-based labeling," Van Eenennaam said in her opening statement.
But Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said a clear label would allow consumers to use their buying power more effectively. If they can clearly choose a non-GMO product, that allows them to theoretically weigh in on broader concerns of GMOs, including their impacts on pesticide use.
"We want consumers to use buying power to shape their world, and if they are confused, they can't do that," Faber said.
In response to more questions from Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., on consumers' need for a labeling system, witness Tom Dempsey, CEO of the National Snack Food Association, compared the situation to organic labeling.
"We don't put non-organic on the balance of the products [that aren't organic]," Dempsey explained. Like products that can't be certified organic, products that may include GMOs make up a majority of food offerings at retail.
Panelists also took a hard look at the potential costs of labeling – and the impacts of campaigns to support or defeat statewide labeling measures, such as the recent debate in Oregon.
Faber suggested that the more than $100 million that was spent on state GMO labeling campaigns could have been better spent to educate consumers on food labels, so they know what they are buying. A national standard could eliminate spending on those local campaigns, he said.
But Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said GMO labeling ultimately could be a "solution in search of a problem."
With "no demonstrated health or safety risk, that's a tough one to swallow," he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Rep. John Sarbanes as Rep. Paul Sarbanes. The error has been corrected.
Are you interested in the GMO discussion? Penton Farm Progress Special Projects Editor Holly Spangler this summer explored GMO foods, GMO labeling and the genetically modified food debate in an exclusive series. Follow the links below for more.