GMO label debate

Congressman Doug LaMalfa and local activist have different views on a new bill now in the Senate

Doug LaMalfa was elected to Congress in 2012.

Doug LaMalfa was elected to Congress in 2012.

Photo courtesy of doug lamalfa

Back in March, when most Americans had their attention focused on the Middle East and Californians were bracing for another drought year, a Republican congressman from Kansas introduced a bill that drew scant notice. H.R. 1599 would govern how genetically modified organisms (GMOs) get listed on food labels—and do so by federal mandate, overriding any state or municipal regulation.

Rep. Mike Pompeo titled his bill “The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.”

Advocates for labels clearly identifying products with GMOs have a different name for it: “The DARK Act.” Their acronym stands for Denying Americans the Right to Know, since they contend the law will make it easier on food manufacturers who want to hide GMO ingredients and harder on those who want to declare their foods GMO-free.

One such advocate is Pamm Larry. A resident of Chico, she is director of the grassroots organization, who’s been following H.R. 1599 from the beginning. Bolstered by 106 co-sponsors—including North State Congressman Doug LaMalfa, who signed on eight days before the vote—H.R. 1599 passed 275-130 (with a 230-12 margin from Republicans). It’s now in the Senate.

Larry says the bill has raised the ire of “every consumers’ union, nonprofits, many farmers, businesses—anybody who thinks we should be able to know what’s in our food, and not have to pay more for that right.

“We think that if you’re going to change something, it should be labeled. The onus shouldn’t be on the food that hasn’t been changed in that way, in a lab.”

LaMalfa, a rice farmer in Richvale, sees H.R. 1599 differently. He told the CN&R that the bill will allow the establishment of standards so consumers can understand, and trust, food labels. Does “non-GMO” mean absolutely no traces in every single ingredient? That’s to be defined, he said, and should be done nationally, not in a patchwork of state-by-state criteria.

He supports voluntary labeling of products containing GMOs, he said, due to his philosophy of having “a hard time forcing regulations on people like that [when] there is a cost involved” and added, “There is a perception, too. As more and more we’re learning about biotech foods in the marketplace, you’re finding there’s a heck of a lot less to be scared of with it.

“When you talk to people in the industry, it’s just a step beyond what you had with hand-selection or cross-pollinating. Some of the manufacturers have really reeled back their biotech efforts, trying to stay within same-crop genes. They see the need to have a little more marketplace comfort, and some elements of the market aren’t comfortable with it at all.”

The flipside of the voluntary labeling under H.R. 1599 is that those food brands that want to advertise a lack of GMOs will need to follow the “organic” path. That is, they will need to adhere to standards and receive certification—which, as LaMalfa implied and Larry declared, adds to the cost.

“Like organics, [GMO-free] becomes an elitist food,” Larry said.

The bill calls for “the Agricultural Marketing Service to establish a program to certify non-GMO food”—along with stating that the Food and Drug Administration “must regulate the use of ‘natural’ on food labels” and “must allow, but not require, GMO food to be labeled as GMO.” Moreover, H.R. 1599 preempts state and local restrictions on GMOs or GMO food and labeling requirements.

Larry says LaMalfa’s endorsement of a federal law stripping local authority is surprising, considering his stance on states’ rights.

“It is something that crossed my mind,” LaMalfa said, “and makes me really think, ‘Are we doing things right,’ and I’m comfortable with it on this issue because as far as consumers and people who bring food to the marketplace, it’s much less chaotic with a set, fair nationwide standard.”

While LaMalfa calls criticism of the bill as encapsulated in the DARK Act label “good sleight of hand” and “good theater” to “make people angry and afraid,” Larry finds “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” just as much a misnomer.

The future of the bill is uncertain, as it still must pass through the Senate and the president.

Larry, for one, has placed her energy in stopping H.R. 1599 in the Senate and promoting S 511, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, introduced by California Sen. Barbara Boxer in February. That bill would prohibit the sale of GMO foods without proper labeling.

“It’s unfair that our government doesn’t provide for us to know what we’re buying,” Larry said.