Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (HR 1599, 114th Congress)

The Policy

What it does

Calls for strictly defined, unified, federal regulations for the labeling of GMO and non-GMO food.

Synopsis

HR 1599 seeks to eliminate confusion and misinformation for consumers by standardizing all labeling and safety verifications of genetically modified foods across the country. 

  • The bill amends the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to allow the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to regulate and require labeling on foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) (also referred to as bioengineered foods). 
  • HR 1599 requires food manufacturers to notify the FDA of any GMO- containing foods before they are sold interstate, after which the FDA will determine if the product is safe for sale and use by humans or animals and/or requires labeling. Specifically, the bill modifies Sections 461- 462 of the Plant Protection Act to reflect that food products stemming from genetically engineered will not be legal for interstate sale without authentication from the FDA and HHS. 
  • The FDA can only require labeling on GM foods when evidence suggests significant differences in function, nutrition, allergenicity or compositional attributes between the GMO product and its comparable non-GMO version that pose public health or safety risks. Thus, the FDA cannot require labeling on foods exclusively because they contain GMOs.
  • Products cannot be labeled as “non-GMO” if they are planted with genetically modified seeds or interact with GM products during any stages of processing. [Dairy products can be labeled as non-GMO even if animals are fed foods made from GMOs or genetically engineered processing aids or enzymes]. Non-GMO labels cannot express or imply that products without genetic engineering are safer or higher quality than products produced from or containing GMOs.
  • The bill prohibits individual state laws governing labeling of GMO foods.

Context

<p>In 2014, the state of Vermont passed <a href="http://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Documents/2014/Docs/ACTS/ACT120/AC... 120</a>, the first state law to mandate the labeling of all food products sold intrastate that contain genetically modified components. Sponsors of HR&nbsp;1599 cite the passage of Act 120 as their indication of the need for federal regulation of genetically modified food labeling, stating that the act “threatened to generate a patchwork of differing state and local labeling requirements. This patchwork would have created unnecessary confusion and cost among consumers and food manufacturers without achieving the goal of improving consumer awareness of public health.” Although two draft guidances were released by the FDA in <a href="http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryIn... and <a href="http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2001-01-18/pdf/01-1046.pdf">2001</a> regarding labeling of GMO-containing foods, the agency has yet to pass any binding or complete guidances on the subject. FDA has <a href="http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/GEPlants/ucm461805.htm">long considered currently marketed GMO foods to be safe</a>.</p>

The Science

Science Synopsis

The first “genetic modification” of crops occurred through artificial selection in breeding, for example, breeding taller crops over many generations to increase the average size of the crops. What we now classify as GMOs are developed using more complex measures to alter crops’ genetic material, such as in vitro nucleic acid editing techniques, or editing of DNA which takes place in a lab rather than in an organism, in which:

  • Segments of DNA from other species are inserted into crops’ genomes using recombinant DNA technologies; or
  • Segments of DNA from the original crop’s genome are deleted.

Some GMO labeling legislation additionally cites hybridization techniques as genetic modification, in which cells from different organisms are chemically fused together to create daughter cells with characteristics of both parents. Because of its resemblance to traditional plant breeding, this method is not traditionally considered genetic modification.

The introduction of foreign genetic material can provide many advantages, such as:

  • increased yields;
  • increased resistance to pests and disease (and reduced need for pesticides);
  • enhanced crop nutrient content; and
  • enhanced crop viability in harsher soil and weather conditions. 

The Debate

Endorsements & Opposition

Endorsements

Opposition

  • Organizations opposed to the bill, including Food and Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and a number of other environmental advocacy groups, have nicknamed the bill the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act”. Opponents argue that while the bill claims to mandate and support the labeling of GMOs, it instead denies states’ rights to pass stricter labeling legislation and consumers’ rights to know and chose whether they purchase products containing GMOs. (Unlike proposed state legislation, this bill only mandates that products containing GMOs be labeled if they are notably different from the “natural” version, indicating that many GMO products may not be labeled as such.) CFS’s Director of Government Affairs stated, “With this vote, [House Agriculture] committee members are clearly saying they are against states’ rights, against small farmers looking to protect their livelihoods, and against consumers who want to exercise their freedom to choose what they eat. This is unacceptable...At a time when Americans – farmers and consumers alike – are seeking greater diversity and individual control in their food choices, this bill smashes those rights.”

The broad debate surrounding GMOs themselves is hotly contested. Proponents argue GMOs are safe for consumption and offer immense public health, agricultural and economic benefits, such as the ones listed above. Opponents cite potential risks of altering natural gene expression, including changes in the organism’s metabolism, growth rate and response to its environment, all of which could affect whether the crop is safe to consume and grow in certain ecosystems. Some worry that introduced genes could be allergenic or carry traits such as antibiotic resistance, negatively affecting human health. Thus far, however, there is no credible evidence of adverse health effects to humans resulting from consumption of GMOs. The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has reviewed the safety of GM crops, as has the UK’s Royal Society of Medicine, the European Union, and the World Health Organization. All have concluded that GM crops pose no unique hazards to human health. The NAS is expected to release an updated report in 2016.