THE topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has come up in a handful of hearings lately, and the message from this Administration has been an encouraging one in support of the need to stick to science.
During a hearing April 3, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told House Agriculture Committee members that conflict over genetic modification is "unfortunate" and that more needs to be done to share the benefits the technology provides, such as increased affordability and accessibility to food.
He also noted that one of the great opportunities for Americans is to embrace diversity, whether that's regarding the size of the operation, the production methods or the operators.
"There is room for everyone. We have to have more collaborative than more conflicting conversations," he said of the ongoing GMO discussion.
Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg reinforced the agency's stance on labeling products containing biotech ingredients during a March 27 House appropriations subcommittee meeting.
In response to questioning from committee ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.), Hamburg said FDA supports voluntary GMO labeling but opposes mandatory labeling.
She explained that mandatory labeling is appropriate and required when there is a false claim or misbranding, but the presence of GM ingredients in food doesn't constitute a material change in the product such as the nutritional content, performance of the food, taste or aroma.
"From a scientific and safety assessment, we do not currently believe genetic modification of food products makes a material change to the product in terms of nutritional or other qualities," Hamburg testified.
She also noted that "a lot of very credible" research has been evaluated over a long period of time that backs the safety of GMOs.
Hamburg recognized that labeling GM foods is "obviously on the minds of many Americans," but she said the voluntary approach to labeling does allow those who wish to avoid GM foods to do so.
Hamburg said FDA hopes to finalize a proposed guidance soon with respect to plant-based GM foods.
The Coalition for Safe & Affordable Foods, consisting of 34 groups from different segments of the food supply chain, are advocating for federal legislation that would require FDA to conduct a safety review of all new GM traits before they are introduced into commerce. FDA would be empowered to mandate the labeling of GM food ingredients if the agency determines that there is a health, safety or nutrition issue with the biotechnology. A federal bill would also pre-empt a patchwork of state initiatives.
Agricultural groups may have found their champion on the issue as Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) is reportedly looking to introduce legislation that would create a federal voluntary labeling system. Politico reported that he's working with the coalition and the House Energy & Commerce Committee to introduce a bill before the Easter recess.
The Kansas Soybean Assn. and Biotechnology Industry Organization both tweeted out #StandWithPompeo in hopes of drumming up support for the legislator.
However, Politico stated that food policy insiders speculated that the more senior Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.) would sponsor the bill, which could call into question the ability to pull it across the finish line.