GMO VegetableRecently, on March 12, 2012, 55 Members of Congress sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg calling on the agency to require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

According to a press release from the nonprofit organization Center for Food Safety:

The bicameral, bipartisan letter led by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) was written in support of a legal petition filed by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) on behalf of the Just Label It campaign and its nearly 400 partner organizations and businesses; many health, consumer, environmental, and farming organizations, as well as food companies, are also signatories.  Since CFS filed the labeling petition in October 2011, the public has submitted over 850,000 comments in support of labeling.

The letter comes as the most recent move in the longstanding and familiar debate over whether the U.S. should require labeling of GE foods. For years, proponents of labeling have emphasized that consumers have a right to know what is in their food and have expressed concern over the potential unintended consequences of consuming GE food products. On the other hand, opponents have maintained that the expense and difficulty of labeling GE food products would be prohibitive.

As background information, GE or genetically modified (GM) foods are those whose genetic makeup has been altered using laboratory techniques in order to achieve certain desirable traits such as pesticide resistance, drought tolerance, or improved nutrient content. This process involves the introduction of foreign or synthetic DNA material into the organism’s cells. The technology used to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is fairly new, having only been developed in the early 1970s. However, today, the use of that technology in commercial food production is widespread.

Nearly two decades ago, in May 1992, the FDA issued a Statement of Policy where it addressed the labeling of foods derived from new plant varieties, including plants developed by genetic engineering. The agency concluded that those GE foods do not differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, and, as such, are not subject to special labeling requirements. This decision caused a stir among consumer advocacy groups who believed that GE foods should be labeled so that consumers can make fully informed choices. However, the FDA’s policy on GE food labeling has remained unchanged. 

Congress’ letter from earlier this month urges the FDA to change that position. The letter notes that “[a]t issue is the fundamental right consumers have to make informed choices about the food they eat.” The Center for Food Safety has asked the FDA to respond to its petition within a “reasonable time.” It is unclear where the FDA will fall on this issue.

Yet despite the fact that there is currently no federal regulation mandating the labeling of GE foods, several states have begun to consider bills that would require labeling of GE foods or would prohibit them entirely. Among those states are California, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington. In addition, nearly 50 countries including the European Union member states, Japan and other important United States trading partners, have laws requiring companies to disclose the presence of GE ingredients on their food product labels.

It will be crucial for the food industry to pay careful attention to the changing state of the law surrounding GE food labeling to ensure that their product labels are in full compliance.