April 4, 2015

Proposed Federal Legislation on Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Products

Federal legislation has been introduced to impose a national scheme on the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599) was reintroduced following a recent hearing on the subject in the House Agriculture Committee. This proposed bill continues an ongoing oscillation between state and federal initiatives on the labeling of GE food. H.R. 1599 would amend Section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. 343) (FFDCA) to classify a food as misbranded if:
[I]t bears labeling (indicating that bioengineering was or was not used in the production of the food) in violation of section 425.
Misbranded foods are prohibited by the FFDCA. The proposed bill would preempt state labeling laws regarding GE food. To date, several states have passed mandatory GE labeling foods. The proposed anti-labeling law introduced in the House would preempt the food labeling laws passed by Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. Also at the federal level and in opposition, bills to mandate nationwide labeling of GE foods have been introduced for many years, none of them getting very far. However, the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act (H.R. 913) has also been reintroduced in this session of Congress; this bill would amend Section 403 of the FFDCA to declare that a food is “misbranded” if:
[I]t is a food that has been genetically engineered or contains 1 or more genetically engineered ingredients, unless the ingredients label clearly states that the food has been genetically engineered or identifies any genetically engineered ingredients, as applicable. 
Legislators in Maine have proposed delinking that state’s labeling law from the need to wait for other regional neighbors to follow suit. As it stands, Maine’s law cannot take effect until 4 other Northeastern states pass labeling laws. As state laws go, Vermont is on track to be the first state to require labeling when its law goes into effect in 2016. Legislative activity over mandatory labeling of GE food has occurred in more than half the states. In another aspect of the labeling debate, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has proposed that labeling information could be delivered by a smartphone app, making it available to consumers on a discretionary basis, without imposing direct labels on food products. That proposal has not satisfied critics, who view do not view that approach as an equitable substitute for mandatory labeling. The upshot of all this activity is that both federal laws, in opposition to each other, are still very unlikely to pass. At the state level, Vermont is on track to an active law in 2016, and we are likely to see some state pro-labeling ballot initiatives again in the 2016 election, similar to what occurred in 2014.

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