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House Approves Legislation Barring States from Requiring GE Labelling of Food Products

The House of Representatives on 23 July approved by a 275-150 vote legislation that would bar U.S. states from requiring mandatory labelling of genetically engineered food. Should the legislation be approved by the Senate and signed into law by the president, it would nullify the GE labelling laws already on the books in such states as Vermont, Connecticut and Maine and halt on-going efforts in other states to adopt similar labelling provisions.

In addition to pre-empting state efforts on GE labelling, the so-called Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599) would amend the FD&C Act to require the developer of a bioengineered organism intended as food to submit a pre-market biotechnology notification to the FDA. The notification would have to include the developer's determination that food from, containing or consisting of the genetically modified organism is as safe as a comparable non-GMO food. For the GMO to be sold as food the FDA must not object to the developer's determination. If the FDA determines that there is a material difference in the functional, nutritional or compositional characteristics, allergenicity or other attributes between a GMO food and a comparable non-GMO food, the agency could specify labelling requirements that inform consumers of the difference.

According to the legislation, a food label could only claim that a food is non-GMO if the ingredients are subject to certain supply chain process controls. No food label would be able to suggest that non-GMO foods are safer than GMO foods. A food could be labelled as non-GMO even if it is produced with a GMO processing aid or enzyme or derived from animals fed GMO feed or given GMO drugs. The FDA would have to allow, but not require, that a GMO food be labelled as GMO, and would also be required to regulate the use of the term "natural" on food labels. The legislation would also amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service to establish a programme to certify non-GMO food.

Not surprisingly, several consumer and farmers groups have expressed strong opposition to H.R. 1599. The Center for Food Safety warned in a 23 July press release that the legislation "codifies a voluntary labelling system approach, blocks FDA from ever implementing mandatory GE food labelling, and would allow food companies to continue to make misleading "natural" claims for foods that contain GE ingredients." The association adds that H.R. 1599 could negate over 130 statutes, regulations and ordinances in 43 states at the state and municipal levels, taking away the ability of local governments to address specific cultural, agricultural and ecological concerns. The National Farmers Union, for its part, continues to support conspicuous, mandatory and uniform GE labelling at the federal level for food products throughout the processing chain to include all ingredients, additives and processes.

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