WASHINGTON — If Washington voters ratify Initiative 522 next week, the biggest changes may go beyond the state’s grocery shelves, where
food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients would be labeled as such.
Reverberations also may reach Washington, D.C.
It’s been 14 years since U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., first introduced legislation to require labeling for genetically engineered (GE) foods. Now initiative supporters and pro-labeling lawmakers see the Washington vote as a potential catalyst for federal regulations.
Passage of I-522 is “the best chance we have to put the issue in play in Congress,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., lead author of a mandatory-labeling bill, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act.
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DeFazio’s bill and a companion Senate version reintroduced by Boxer are languishing in committees. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, is the only member of the state’s congressional delegation to co-sponsor either bill.
Lawmakers in 24 states have introduced bills that would require labeling or banning genetically engineered foods. Two other states, Maine and Connecticut, have passed labeling laws, but the rules won’t go into effect unless surrounding states also adopt mandatory disclosure.
Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C. group that helped write I-522, said proponents are pursuing labeling laws at the state level but with nationwide disclosure as the ultimate aim.
“Our long-term goal has always been that all consumers have the right to know,” he said. Foes of labeling, including Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, do “not want a patchwork of state standards.”
Thomas Helscher, a spokesman for Monsanto, the St. Louis-based biochemical giant that helped bankroll the record-setting contributions in the effort to defeat the Washington state initiative, declined to comment on the company’s post-I-522 strategy.
If Congress passes a labeling law, it would countermand a position held since 1992 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that foods made with genetically engineered ingredients are not “materially different” from conventional foods and that labeling is unwarranted.
Right to know resisted
The FDA has long resisted such consumers’ right-to-know arguments as basis for policymaking on food labels, said Fred Degnan, the agency’s former associate chief counsel for foods and for enforcement.
Instead, the FDA’s approach is to follow the science and to reserve required labeling to essential information consumers need to make informed choices, he said.
One test is whether the information is of “material consequence.” So in addition to listing ingredients, net weight and nutritional information, companies must label products that contain corn or wheat gluten, for instance, to warn consumers with allergies.
Another test is whether processing methods or other factors lead to material changes in flavor, shelf life or other product characteristics. So imitation cheese must be labeled as such if it contains less protein or essential vitamins and minerals than the regular kind. Same goes for juices made from concentrates, and milk and cream pasteurized at ultrahigh temperature.
By the same reasoning, the FDA in 1993 ruled that no special label was needed for milk from dairy cows fed with Monsanto’s synthetic growth hormone. The milk from so-called rBST cows, the agency said, was no different from those from animals free of hormones.
Degnan, now a partner in the FDA and life-sciences practice group for the law firm King & Spalding in Washington, D.C., said the agency has really only once singled out a processing method for mandatory labeling. That’s for foods
treated with radiation to reduce spoilage.
The FDA’s rationale did not involve health concerns over irradiation, but that the technique may alter taste or shelf life.
Degnan believes the FDA’s stance on GE labels is consistent with its handling of another controversial ingredient, the fat-substitute olestra.
From 1996 to 2003, manufacturers had to print a boxed statement on fat-free Pringles and other foods containing olestra that said the ingredient may cause cramping and loose stools.
The FDA dropped that requirement after concluding olestra caused only a minor increase in digestive troubles but created confusion among consumers who erroneously thought the substance interfered with absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.
Boxer rejects the FDA’s notion that genetically engineered foods are largely indistinguishable from conventional foods. When she introduced her first labeling bill in 2000, she was the sole supporter. Her bill today has 13 co-sponsors. And 45 House members have signed on to DeFazio’s bill.
At an appearance in California in May at the headquarters of Clif Bar, an energy-bar company and labeling supporter, Boxer pointed to the growing support among her colleagues as a sign of “growing momentum for action.”
She made that comment six months after California voters rejected Proposition 37, a GE labeling measure similar to Washington’s.
Boxer’s office notes manufacturers already must divulge many ingredients and additives — from aspartame to trans fats to high fructose corn syrup — and that genetically engineered ingredients shouldn’t be exempt.
But I-522 imposes one big difference: GE foods would carry a label on the front — not the back — saying “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering.”
Critics of labeling say such display would feed consumers’ fears. Others disagree.
Degnan, the former FDA official, wrote in a 2007 essay on GE labeling that the agency historically has avoided clutter on food packages by granting real estate only for information that’s truly essential.
“The food label would be an entirely different entity from what it is today if the FDA had acted otherwise,” he wrote.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong