Last week, the House Committee on Agriculture held a public hearing to examine the costs and impacts of states implementing mandatory biotechnology labeling laws. In 2014, 125 bills mandating the labeling of biotechnology were introduced in 30 different states.
According to a report by William Lesser and Susan Lynch, professors in science and business at Cornell University, shifting from the current voluntary system to a mandatory system in New York State would significantly increase food costs.
The report found that a family of four in New York State could pay, on average, an additional $500 in annual food costs if mandatory labeling becomes law. The state would also incur an estimated $1.6 million in costs from writing and enforcing new regulations and litigating potential lawsuits related to mandatory labeling, which could run as high as $8 million and would likely be passed onto consumers.
The committee recognizes the desire among some consumers for more information about food. Voluntary marketing programs already exist in the Department of Agriculture that provide consumers with this information in an effective and affordable manner, such as the National Organic Program.
While mandatory labeling is costly, House Republicans are looking at other options, including a new government supported certification for foods free of genetically modified ingredients, similar to the “USDA organic” label.
“This growing patchwork of mandatory state laws is creating confusion and driving up the cost of food, harming the most vulnerable Americans,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX) said. “Our farmers and ranchers produce the safest, most affordable and most abundant food in the world. Unnecessary and conflicting regulations will only make it harder for our farmers and ranchers to feed America and the world. These state laws are not based on science and are both inconsistent and misleading. We have a federal regulatory process for the approval of biotechnology that is both scientifically sound and works. It is incumbent on us to make sure that the system is not undermined.
These state laws are a tangible threat to American agriculture and all of us who depend on it.”
Biotech, Horticulture, and Research Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis (IL-13) is playing a central role on this issue.
“Biotech labeling is an important issue that we cannot afford to get wrong,” Davis said. “A patchwork of inconsistent or unnecessary regulations from states could add hundreds to a family’s grocery bill each year. As we continue this discussion regarding labeling, we must remember the benefits biotech has on our environment and the role it plays in feeding a growing population.”
The idea of a voluntary GMO label is gaining traction, with support from Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) who plans to include the idea in legislation he plans to introduce.
Pompeo says a government-certified label would allow companies that want to advertise their foods as GMO-free to do so, without putting a mandatory burden on others. The food industry, which backs Pompeo’ s bill, has strongly opposed individual state efforts to require labeling.
According to Pompeo, his bill, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 will ensure that America’s farmers will continue to be able to innovate and improve the quality and quantity of their crops and provide nutritious, affordable food on families’ tables both here and across the world.
Without the reforms in this legislation, a patchwork of state GMO labeling laws could mislead consumers and increase food prices for families. This bill preserves and affirms the FDA’s role in food safety, while ensuring that all Americans’ desire to know what’s in their food is respected. To that end, this legislation includes a new provision to allow those who wish to label their products as GMO-free to do so through a USDA-accredited certification process, according to Pompeo.
“We took the positive feedback we received after our hearing in December and have been meeting with key stakeholders to ensure this is the right policy for both producers and consumers,” said Pompeo. “Our goal for this legislation remains to provide clarity and transparency in food labeling, support innovation, and keep food affordable.”
Separate labeling in each state would be costly for producers, and confusing for consumers according to supporters of a voluntary label.
“The potential for a 50-state patchwork of varying labeling standards would increase costs for producers and translate into higher prices for consumers to the tune of more than $500 per year for the average family,” said Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-NC). “This bill will provide clear rules for producers and certainty for consumers at the grocery store checkout lane.”
Pompeo’s bill would override any state law requiring GMO labeling. He introduced a similar bill last year that did not include the Agriculture Department certification. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor