A bill that would prevent state and local governments from requiring labels on genetically modified foods passed Thursday in the U.S. House after contentious debate in a 275-150 vote.
The bill now heads to the Senate. If enacted into law, it would nullify labeling laws that already have passed but have yet to take effect in three states — Vermont, Connecticut and Maine.
At least 15 other states have introduced legislation to impose similar regulations on food made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. But it has been an uphill battle in many places, with strong opposition from the food industry helping to defeat anti-GMO proposals in California and Washington state, among others.
Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas and his Democratic colleague G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina championed the bill that passed the House on Thursday.
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Their Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act would replace local laws with a voluntary GMO-free certification program overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We’re very happy that we’ve taken this first step along the way toward getting a sound policy for agricultural biotechnology in the U.S. — something that’s been needed for a decade-plus,” Pompeo said in an interview. “Now to have it pass across the House floor is a significant milestone.”
The bill has sparked strong opposition from consumer advocates and environmentalists, who have nicknamed it the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act, or the Dark Act. They expressed outrage with the vote Thursday but admitted they weren’t surprised.
“Today’s vote to deny Americans the right to know what’s in their food and how it’s grown was a foregone conclusion,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “This House was bought and paid for by corporate interests.”
He vowed to defeat the bill in the Senate.
The controversy surrounding GMOs in the U.S. food supply was on vivid display Thursday on the House floor as members of Congress who opposed the bill rose to decry the injection of tomatoes with frost-resistant flounder genes and the creation of fast-growing salmon “Frankenfish” engineered with genes from an eel-like ocean pout.
“They tell us, ‘Don’t worry, they won’t get out and most of them are sterile.’ Yeah, right,” scoffed Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, referring to the salmon-eel hybrid. “What happens when some of them get out?”
Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, complained that the bill would violate states’ rights.
“This legislation fundamentally takes away from your state and mine the ability to do what they believe is in the interest of their consumers to let them know what they’re buying,” Welch said.
Proponents of the legislation accused their colleagues of fearmongering and stressed that food made with GMO ingredients has been deemed safe to eat by the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and the federal government.
A coalition of agriculture interests across the country supports the bill and in a letter to lawmakers this spring said GMOs have been part of the American food system for 20 years.
About 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in America are genetically engineered, meaning that the crops have been artificially altered, often to use less water or to resist pests.
“Precisely zero pieces of credible evidence have been presented that foods produced with biotechnology pose any risk to our health and safety,” said Pompeo, who spent hours responding to the bill’s critics, point by point, standing at his desk on the House floor.
The government doesn’t have any business mandating how a food product should be labeled “based solely on how it was bred,” Pompeo said. “That is unscientific and bad public policy.”
Butterfield said the bill would prevent a patchwork of different state and local labeling laws from confusing consumers and inflating food prices.
If GMO labeling were to become mandatory, “wholesale changes to growing, packaging and shipping food would have to be made,” Butterfield said.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act represents a “measured approach,” he said.
“It gives consumers certainty,” Butterfield said, “while taking into account the complexity and delicate balance of the food chain responsible for feeding millions of Americans.”