Posted 10 months ago on Sept. 29, 2013, 3:39 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Senators Angle for Monsanto-Friendly FDA Voluntary GMO Labeling "Guidance"
Sunday, 29 September 2013 09:43 By Katherine Paul and Alexis Baden-Mayer, Organic Consumers Association | Report
While consumers battle on for laws mandating the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products, some lawmakers are taking the GMO labeling debate in a different direction. And it’s a direction that’s anything but consumer friendly.
Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) asked the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to finalize its 2001 guidance on voluntary labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The senators advertised their request as a move intended to benefit consumers. But in fact, a federal voluntary labeling plan plays right into the hands of the biotech and big food industries.
How? Worst-case scenario, once the FDA finalizes its GMO labeling guidance, industry uses the FDA guidance to preempt state laws requiring mandatory labeling of GMOs. Currently, states have the right to enact GMO labeling laws precisely because the FDA has not formally ruled on GMO labeling.
Second, the FDA’s guidance on voluntary GMO labeling could be used to put an end to existing, legitimate voluntary non-GMO labeling efforts. By allowing the FDA, which has previously (and controversially) ruled that GMO and non-GMO foods are “substantially equivalent,” the FDA could rule against non-GMO or GMO-free labels on the basis that they mislead consumers by implying that there’s a difference between GMO and non-GMO foods.
The operative word: ‘voluntary’
On August 22, Sen. Warren and Sen. Udall sent a joint letter to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration urging the agency “. . . to finalize its guidance document on labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) marketed as food or food additives.”
“We encourage the FDA to implement a regulatory framework that will promote transparency for consumers while providing producers with the certainty they need to label their products appropriately.”
Coming from Sen. Warren, whose reputation as a staunch consumer advocate is near-legendary, the letter to the FDA looks like another example of the Massachusetts senator going to bat for consumers – specifically, the 93 percent of Americans who want mandatory GMO labeling laws.
Until you take a closer look.
The 2001 guidance document, Docket Number 00D-1598, that Warren and Udall reference in their letter is intended to provide guidance for voluntary labeling, not the mandatory labeling consumers are fighting for. Yet nowhere in the letter to the FDA, or in the press release issued by Warren’s office, does the word “voluntary” appear.
Oversight? Or did Senators Warren and Udall intentionally omit the word “voluntary” in the hope that consumers wouldn’t notice?
Senators Warren and Udall both refused to support federal legislation that would have required mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. Both also voted against an amendment to the farm bill that would have protected states’ rights to label GMOs.
Are Senators Warren and Udall simply misinformed on the merits of voluntary labeling versus mandatory labeling? Or have they joined the cast of lawmakers toiling behind the scenes on behalf of Monsanto, not consumers?
A ploy to preempt state labeling laws?
Monsanto likes to cry “unfair” when it comes to the issue of state GMO labeling laws. The biotech giant has even threatened to sue states that attempt to pass their own GMO labeling laws, on the basis that state labeling laws violate interstate commerce rules, which makes them illegal.
Despite Monsanto’s yet-untested threats, current law supports states’ rights to enact their own food labeling laws, as long as two conditions are met. First, the state must produce compelling evidence that the law is needed to protect the health or safety of citizens. And second, there must be no pre-existing FDA regulation governing the label in question.
State GMO labeling laws currently meet those conditions. But that could change if the FDA heeds Senators Warren’s and Udall’s call to finalize its 2001 guidance on voluntary GMO labeling. And industry knows it.
In 2010, a consumer sued ConAgra for claiming that its Wesson-brand oil, made from genetically engineered canola oil, was “100% natural.” The lawsuit called for the courts to require ConAgra to accurately label the product. The courts ultimately dismissed the lawsuit on procedural grounds. But not before they addressed some of ConAgra’s arguments, including the food maker’s claim that, under the law, California had no legal right to establish its own standards governing the use of “natural” on food labels.
The court disagreed, stating that because the FDA had never defined what constitutes the words “natural” or “all natural” on food products, California could in fact define those words on a statewide basis. Absent any relevant federal standard, California’s law would pose no conflict with federal laws. ConAgra also had argued that any attempt to require the company to label its products as containing GMOs would be preempted by the FDA’s 2001 draft guidance on voluntary GMO labeling. Again, the court disagreed, citing the fact that the FDA guidance had never been finalized.
“As the guidance makes clear, it is merely a non-binding draft distributed for comment purposes. The guidance was not the product of a formal administrative process suggesting fairness and deliberation by the agency; it therefore cannot be said to have the force of federal law.”
The message to ConAgra and Monsanto? Get the FDA to finalize the 2001 draft guidance, and maybe you’ll have a case.