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Bill to bar GMO labeling unveiled

GMO protestor
Luke Runyon
Harvest Public Media

State efforts to label genetically-modified food would be outlawed under a bill unveiled by a Kansas congressman Wednesday – a plan immediately criticized as a “legislative Hail Mary” that won’t pass.

The bill by Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Wichita, would also bar the Food and Drug Administration from labeling efforts, a move highly popular with consumers, and allow so-called “natural” foods to contain bio-engineered ingredients.  

Backed by grocery and food industry giants, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Pompeo said the legislation would set a “federal norm” and prevent the many state ballot initiatives popping up across the country.  

“Some of the campaigns in some of the states aren’t really to inform consumers but rather aimed at scaring them,” Pompeo said. “And so it’s my judgment and what this bill attempts to do is set a standard.”

The bill would force the FDA to do a scientific review on new bio-engineered products. The FDA could then keep those products from the market, which it already has the authority to do. 

Labeling efforts have failed in California and Washington, after the food industry spent millions against the plans. But more than 27 states are currently considering mandatory labeling laws, Vermont is set to enact a plan, and two other states have approved bills with a “trigger” clause, set to go into effect when other states pass plans, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Pompeo called his bill the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.” Environmental and food safety advocates dubbed it the “DARK Act,” – which would deny Americans the right-to-know.

“What’s so disappointing and troubling about the DARK Act is that Americans overwhelmingly want the right to know whether there are (genetically-engineered) ingredients in their food,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, who called it a “legislative Hail Mary” that will be “dead on arrival” in Congress.

The issue has pitted food and ag giants like Monsanto and Kraft against a coalition of environmental, organic and small farm interests, which includes Ben & Jerry’s.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food and beverage companies, significantly increased its lobbying effort last year, spending 14.3 million in 2013.  

(Read “Five things you should know about genetically-modified food.”)

Genetically-modified products have helped feed the world, Pompeo said, offering pest- and drought-resistant crops as global population grows. Stacey Forshee, a Kansas farmer and Farm Bureau member, who joined Pompeo on a conference call, said GMO crops are critical to her operation and all production agriculture, especially when Kansas and other states are dealing with devastating drought.

“The agriculture biotechnology gives our crops more time for rain, even if it’s just a few more days,” she said. “That can be a huge difference between whether we make some money that year or have a loss.”

Despite a lack of Senate sponsorship, Pompeo said hearings will be held on the bill this summer and he predicted passage by the end of the year. 

The measure will go up against a much stricter effort that calls on the FDA to set up a mandatory GMO-labeling plan, introduced last year by Democrats and backed by the Environmental Working Group, the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Trade Association.

2013 poll suggested 93 percent of the public supporting a labeling effort, with most people worried about health. Pompeo’s bill will add fuel to the fire, Faber said, and may backfire, igniting more support in Congress and with consumers.

“We know and it’s clear that (Grocery Manufacturers Association) knows that labeling is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when,’” said Colin O’Neal of the Center for Food Safety. “And they are trying to do what they can in Congress with certain members who are susceptible to the corporate interest to keep consumers in the dark.”

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.
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