Safety of biotech foods confirmed in House hearing

Patchwork of state legislation could benefit from a national standardized labeling position from FDA.

Genetically engineered foods are as safe their conventional counterparts was one consistent message repeated during the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s hearing Wednesday on the Food and Drug Administration’s role in regulation of genetically modified foods.

Although the debate has typically been fueled by deep emotions and rhetoric, Wednesday’s hearing began an honest discussion about national mandatory labeling of essentially a breeding method – genetic engineering – on a packaged food label, explained one of the witnesses after the hearing, Alison van Eenennaam, an animal genomics and biotechnology specialist from UC Davis.

She testified that the consensus of the scientific community is that “there are no unique risks posed by this breeding method” and although consensus doesn’t mean unanimity, it is a strong consensus of what she estimated 99 to 1 and much stronger than scientists’ view on climate change.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) said the hearing was helpful in helping dispel the food safety related concerns of the technology, with all six witnesses concluding GE products are no less safe than their non-GE counterparts, including Michael Landa, FDA director at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Scott Faber, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group who has helped spearhead the Just Label It campaign.

Faber said the goal should be to come up with some way to “craft a disclosure that gives consumers the information they seek that doesn’t lead to judgment.” Unlike the skull and crossbones approach feared by many to stigmatize GMOs, he said his group would like to see something on the label that just provides the information. He claimed that Brazil has had a similar labeling approach for biotech-derived foods since 2001 and have seen no change in purchasing behavior.

However, Van Eenennaam relayed that hasn’t been what happened in Europe when it required a labeling scheme. The minute products got labeled activists targeted products and sought for formulations to be changed.

Tom Dempsey, president of the Snack Food Assn., shared that ultimately a patchwork of state and local GMO labeling laws will hit consumers the hardest resulting in either increased costs at the grocery store or less availability of products on stores shelves. Pompeo consistently said the $500 estimated increased costs to consumers per year should be avoided and could be with his proposed bill.

Dempsey added the real burden is on small, family-owned operators. Currently only 3% of all SKUs on grocery shelves are certified GMO-free, Faber said. But Dempsey said by requiring the large majority of products to claim they are GMO, it goes against current marketing practice of those who have a marketing claim that provides a marketing advantage.

Pompeo’s Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is co-sponsored by Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D., NC), and 36 other members of Congress and would create a mandatory pre-market safety review of all crops containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It also required FDA to define natural, something that doesn’t have a consensus.

Faber said it’s “commonsense for natural to be defined to not include genetically modified technology.”

An email statement from the Organic Consumer Assn. said the FDA has consistently denied requests, even from the courts, to define "natural." OCA's position is that the word natural should be used only on products that are either certified organic, produced using organic methods, or in transition to organic. “We are 100% opposed to the use of the word ‘natural’ on products that contain genetically modified organisms,” said Katherine Paul, communications specialist for OCA.

Pompeo said his bill would allow experts to figure out what should be deefined as natural.

But as Rep. Jim Matheson (D., Utah) shared with there being no acknowledgment of any health or safety risk, the bill could be a solution in search of a problem.   

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