|2007: "We'll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified"|
Washington, DC - Four Democratic lawmakers are standing with a coalition of more than 200 food companies, organic farming groups, and health and environmental advocacy organizations calling on President Barack Obama to keep a 2007 campaign-trail promise to require labeling for foods containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.
In a letter sent to the White House on Thursday, the groups said the US Food and Drug Administration already has the authority under current law to set such standards. Labeling is currently voluntary, though an estimated 70-80% of processed foods contain GE ingredients.
"In 2007, you pledged to give consumers the right to know if their food is genetically engineered," the groups wrote in their letter to the President. "National polls show that 93 percent of Americans share your view."
Mr. Obama was the junior Senator from Illinois making his first run for national office when he seemed to mention GE labeling during a 2007 stump stop in Iowa. The moment was captured in a video by Iowa-based advocacy group Food Democracy Now!
"Here's what I'll do as President...We'll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified, because Americans should know what they're buying," Mr. Obama says in the video.
The letter was released Thursday morning during a press event on Capitol Hill with Democratic Reps. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT), Chellie Pingree (ME) Peter DeFazio (OR), and Ann McLane Kuster (NH), joined by Gary Hirshberg, chairman and co-founder of yogurt company Stonyfield Farm and co-chair of the national Just Label it campaign; Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group; and Colin O’Neil, Center for Food Safety.
"This is not an effort to stop GMO's, nor to mark them with a skull and crossbones--it is simply an exercise of our rights as citizens to know what we are buying and to be able to choose the ways that our foods are grown," said Hirshberg.
The four lawmakers are some of the 50 sponsors, all Dems, of HR 1699, legislation introduced in April, 2013 that would require the FDA to label foods that contain genetically engineered organisms. It remains pending in front of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee. A companion bill in the Senate, S 809, was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
Those signing Thursday's letter include Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Stonyfield Farm, Amy's Kitchen, Eden Foods, the Organic Trade Association, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Environmental Working Group, Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club, among others.
"We believe there should be a mandatory national labeling system," the groups wrote. "FDA has a duty to act when the absence of labeling would leave consumers confused about the foods they buy."
A petition to require labeling has been pending in front of the FDA since 2011. In 2013, 26 states debated legislation on the issue. Just two, Maine and Connecticut, have approved labeling legislation, but both contain "trigger" clauses, and are not currently in effect. For Maine, the trigger requires the surrounding five states to also approve labeling legislation. About 20 more states are expected to take up the issue in 2014.
It is hotly contested, with the food industry, led by the 300-member Grocery Manufacturers Association, and biotech companies largely opposed to mandatory labeling. Over the last two years, close to $70 million was spent battling ballot initiatives in Washington state and California, said Center for Food Safety's O’Neil at the press event.
"This is obviously [a food industry] and pest company agenda to keep consumers in the dark --that’s what they want to do," O’Neil said. "Before these initiatives and before this spending the Obama administration didn’t have the pressure to act. But now I think there is the pressure."
FDA currently has the authority to require companies to disclose the presence of "novel" food ingredients, and the agency requires labeling for more than 3,000 ingredients, additives and food processes.
In a separate move, in late December Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to mandate GE labeling, arguing that FDA already has the authority to require it.
"It is my strong opinion that consumers have the right to know whether their food originates from genetically modified organisms," Feinstein said.
"Your administration should re-evaluate the Food & Drug Administration’s outdated policy that genetically engineered food does not need to disclose this fact on required labels."
The Food Democracy Now! video:
*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama