April 21, 2014

Kansas congressman’s food non-labeling bill counters a growing activist movement

Legislation to prohibit labeling of genetically engineered foods opens the door to one of the most fractious and apparently insoluble debates of our day.

For a nano-second one might have thought that Rep. Mike Pompeo, the reliably extremist conservative from Kansas, had made a miraculous leap to reason. Here he was dissing the possibility of a “patchwork” of state laws and arguing in favor of a federal solution to a nagging issue.

Well, of course there was a catch.

Pompeo’s federal solution is, in fact, a whitewash. But it does open the door to one of the most fractious and apparently insoluble debates of our day.

The issue is food labeling — specifically, labeling as it applies to ingredients that have been genetically engineered.

Consumer groups and food activists have been challenging states and the federal government to mandate accurate labeling of foods containing ingredients that are the product of modern biotechnology (as opposed to alterations derived by natural breeding and hybridization). They’ve had mixed results.

We can stipulate that the science remains inconclusive, or at least highly debatable, on whether pest-resistant grains and other engineered foods have harmful effects on people and the environment. But many consumers would like to know what’s in the food they buy and with good reason.

Backed by the grocery industry, Pompeo and his co-sponsor would pre-empt state regulations and prohibit the Food and Drug Administration from mandating labeling unless a genetically engineered ingredient was found to present a health risk. The FDA has never made such a finding and has called for only voluntary labeling since 1992. It’s under pressure to reconsider, which it should.

The effects of Pompeo’s bill, of course, are to reject the concerns of a growing consumer movement, to deny real worries about environmental consequences and to allow big business to call the shots.

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