House To States: Don't You Dare Demand GMO Labels

Jul 23, 2015
Originally published on July 25, 2015 1:26 pm

The argument over genetically modified food has been dominated, in recent years, by a debate over food labels — specifically, whether those labels should reveal the presence of GMOs.

The battle, until now, has gone state by state. California refused to pass a labeling initiative, but Maine, Connecticut and Vermont have now passed laws in favor of GMO labeling.

Opponents of GMO labeling, including some of the biggest food manufacturers, have turned to Congress, and this week they achieved their first notable success.

A solid majority of the House of Representatives on Thursday voted in favor of a law that would block states from mandating GMO labels.

The debate in Congress followed familiar lines. Opponents of the bill, such as Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine who is also an organic farmer, argued that it's important for consumers to know what they are eating.

Food labels, she pointed out, already tell consumers many things.

"We know how many calories are in it, thanks to the labels. We know how much vitamin C we get per serving. We know if a fish is farm-raised or wild-caught, and we want to know those things. Shouldn't we also be able to know if the food we are buying has GMO ingredients?" she asked.

Opponents of the bill called it an infringement of the public's right to know what's in their food.

Congressional supporters of the bill, meanwhile, argued that mandating labels on foods containing GMOs actually is misleading, because it suggests to consumers that GMOs are somehow risky to eat — which they are not, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

"Mandatory labeling of genetically engineered products has no basis in legitimate health or safety concerns, but is a naked attempt to impose the preferences of a small segment of the populace on the rest of us," said Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, the bill's primary sponsor.

Supporters of the bill also argued that mandatory labels would raise the cost of food.

This bill now goes to the Senate, where no similar legislation has been introduced.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we're going to talk now about the food we eat and how much we should know about it. This question has caused a pretty spirited debate on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers feel that if food is genetically modified, that should be on the label. Others though say the mere act of putting something on a label suggests that something is wrong. And the House yesterday passed a bill siding with that group, saying states cannot require these labels. Here's NPR's Juana Summers.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Labels already tell us a lot about the things we eat and drink. Chellie Pingree, a House Democrat from Maine who's also an organic farmer, ticks off some examples.

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CHELLIE PINGREE: We know how many calories are in it, thanks to the labels. We know how much vitamin C we get per serving. We know if a fish is farm-raised or wild-caught, and we want to know those things. Shouldn't we also be able to know if the food we are buying has GMO ingredients?

SUMMERS: Pingree and others who support labeling say it's important for consumers to know what they're eating. They say it's about transparency. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

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ROSA DELAURO: It is about our basic right to know what we are eating and what we are feeding to our children.

SUMMERS: But supporters of the bill don't agree. They say GMOs are safe, a claim backed up by the FDA, and that new labels would mislead consumers and suggest there's something wrong with GMOs. Republican Mike Pompeo of Kansas supported the bill.

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MIKE POMPEO: Mandatory labeling of genetically engineered products has no basis in legitimate health or safety concerns, but is a naked attempt to impose the preferences of a small segment of the populace on the rest of us.

SUMMERS: The problem for many who don't support the bill isn't GMOs. It's taking away consumer choice - Congressman Peter Welch of Vermont.

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PETER WELCH: What's the problem with letting consumers know what they're buying? They're the ones that decide what products they want to consume.

SUMMERS: If the House bill becomes law, it would block a law in Welch's home state of Vermont, the first state to require labeling of genetically modified food. That law is supposed to take effect in July of next year. Connecticut and Maine have passed similar laws, but delayed their dates of effect - Pingree of Maine.

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PINGREE: I guarantee you if Congress passes this law, my state legislature and my constituents will not be happy. They do not want to see their ability to make those decisions taken away.

SUMMERS: But North Carolina Democrat G.K. Butterfield says that if laws differ from state to state, things could get confusing.

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G.K. BUTTERFIELD: The alternative already beginning to play out in some states across the country is a complex and unworkable patchwork of differing state laws that create an uneven playing field that only can cause confusion and do little to provide transparency.

SUMMERS: Butterfield's argument sounds a lot like what anti-labeling forces outside the Capitol are saying. It could be expensive for farmers and manufacturers to navigate between laws that differ from state to state. This bill now goes to the Senate, where no similar legislation is currently moving. Opponents of the bill say they plan to try to stop it from going any further. Juana Summers, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.