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Pompeo-Butterfield Food Labeling Bill: Valuable But Needs Work

Earlier today, Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) introduced a bill in the House that would establish federal standards for the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods and preempt a growing patchwork quilt of state action on GE labeling. The underlying motivation behind the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (H.R. 4432) is praiseworthy, so the congressmen deserve an A for effort. However, the execution leaves more than a little to be desired. This year, an estimated 25, or more, states will consider legislation or ballot initiatives that would mandate special labeling for many GE foods. As I’ve written before, those proposals are bad policy, make no sense scientifically, would needlessly raise the cost of producing and selling safe, nutritious and wholesome food, and are arguably unconstitutional on several grounds. Nor would they give consumers any actual knowledge about what’s “in their food” – the ostensible purpose of those state measures. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current policy requires foods to be labeled when a material difference has been made in their composition – and the labels must say what the actual change is, not simply what technique was used to make the change. So, in many ways, the FDA’s current policy does a far better job of telling consumers what’s in their food than a GE labeling mandate ever could. By explicitly preempting state labeling laws and making clear that FDA policy on GE food labeling is the law of the land, H.R. 4432 would serve an extremely valuable function. And, because the packaged food items found in most grocery stores are the epitome of interstate commerce, ensuring that oversight of their safety and labeling be governed at the national level, rather than state-by-state, perfectly reflects the plan established by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, in order to attract support for this perfectly reasonable preemption measure, H.R. 4432 offers GE skeptics the enticement of increasing the FDA’s regulatory power. The proposal would grant FDA the authority to keep all new GE foods off the market until agency heads and the presidential administration they work for feel politically safe to grant approvals. Like most other “gatekeeper” regulatory agencies, the FDA would not even need to reject approval for products they don’t like. They would need only decline to make an approval or disapproval determination indefinitely. Supporters point to a 180-day statutory deadline in the bill, which they argue will force the FDA to make timely approval decisions. But it’s worth noting that the FDA faces identical 180-day statutory deadlines for making approval/disapproval decisions on a host of other products, ranging from new pharmaceuticals and medical devices, to new veterinary drugs and new GE food animals. The agency disregards those deadlines on a routine basis because there is no triggering mechanism that automatically grants a producer the right to put safe and effective products on the market when a recalcitrant FDA refuses to act. Want to know just how effective that 180-day deadline is? Just ask AquaBounty, the developers of a GE salmon that would help fish farmers deliver one of America’s favorite seafoods to market in a less expensive and more environmentally sustainable way. The FDA determined several years ago that the AquaBounty salmon was safe for consumers and the environment, but its approval has been held up by the Obama Administration simply because their supporters in the environmental movement object to the technology. Reps. Pompeo and Butterfield do deserve credit for trying to resolve the growing problem of confusing, expensive, and scientifically meritless state labeling proposals for GE food. But, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” contains a serious flaw that will hopefully be corrected once the bill moves to committee.