CEI Analyst: Senate Food Labeling Amendment ‘Uncommonly Silly’

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 23, 2013 – In today’s Senate Agriculture Committee markup hearing on the 2013 Farm Bill, members will consider an amendment introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would make it legal for state governments to require special labeling on genetically engineered food products. Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Gregory Conko, an expert on biotechnology regulation, called the amendment “uncommonly silly – one that, perhaps unintentionally, exposes several major flaws in state-based labeling efforts.”

Labeling advocates claim genetically engineered foods are unnatural and might be unsafe and that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires special labeling only if a plant or animal variety differs materially from its conventional counterparts in ways related to safety or proper use – such as a reduction in nutrients or the introduction of an allergen.

“FDA already requires labeling to note the specific change in composition that is relevant to consumer health,” Conko said. “But labeling advocates only want the label to say ‘made with genetically engineered ingredients.’ So, contrary to activists’ claims, consumers would not, in fact, be told what’s in their food. They would get less information, not more.”

Dozens of the world’s most respected scientific bodies, including the American Medical Association, National Academies of Science and American Association for the Advancement of Science, have concluded genetic engineering is at least as safe as more conventional breeding methods. That’s why they oppose special GE labeling, which they argue would serve only to frighten consumers away from safe and nutritious food products.

Having failed to convince the FDA, labeling advocates now seek to persuade state governments to mandate GE product labeling – so far, with little success. But the proposed Senate labeling amendment reveals one reason those efforts have failed. Section 403A of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act preempts state food labeling laws that conflict with FDA policy. And in 2011, a federal court in California held that state GE labeling requirements therefore would be unlawful. “Anti-GE activists have tried to claim state labeling laws would not be preempted,” said Conko. “But if that were true, this amendment to the Senate Farm Bill wouldn’t be necessary. The Sanders amendment shows how labeling promoters play fast and loose with the facts.”

Even if the Sanders labeling amendment were to be enacted into law, mandatory food labeling instituted for a purpose other than informing consumers of safety or nutrition information would be unconstitutional. In 1996, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Vermont state GE labeling law, holding that “absent some indication that this information bears on a reasonable concern for human health or safety or some other sufficiently substantial governmental concern, the manufacturers cannot be compelled to disclose it.”