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Citing Vermont Bill, Gabbard Renews Call for GE Labeling

May 7, 2014, 12:04 PM HST (Updated May 7, 2014, 5:59 PM)
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Prompted by news that the governor of Vermont intends to sign the nation’s first law requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods, US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has renewed her call for similar federal requirements.

Gabbard said Gov. Peter Shumlin has indicated he would sign the bill into law on Thursday.

She said the US Food and Drug Administration already requires labeling of more than 3,000 ingredients, additives and processes, but has resisted labels for GE foods.

Gabbard is a co-sponsor of the bi-partisan Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act.

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According to Gabbard, more than 1.5 million Americans have filed comments with the FDA urging it to label GE foods, and national surveys have shown that more than 90% of people support it.

“Changing this outdated policy would add the consumer-demanded GE food label to that robust list; a step which would not be cost-prohibitive for companies or consumers,” Gabbard said.

However, many groups and government agencies disagree with the latter statement.

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During unsuccessful ballot attempts to institute labeling in California and Washington over the past two years, industry groups maintained that such requirements would increase the cost of food.

Similar arguments were made in testimony opposing a GE labeling bill introduced in the Hawaii Legislature this past session.

The Hawaii Food Industry Association testified that Hawaii consumers already pay “very high prices” for food – 85% of which is imported — and mandating GE labeling would probably increase the cost “drastically.”

The association said that because Hawaii is a relatively small market, the requirement would be costly to implement and would be borne by Hawaii consumers.

In that respect it agreed with Gabbard, saying that the matter would best be dealt with at the federal level which would put the onus of labeling on manufacturers and suppliers instead of retailers.

The state Department of Health cited the cost of increased regulation in its opposition to the bill.

Acting Health Director Gary Gill said the department did not object in principle to labeling to enhance public awareness of food ingredients, but said such a requirement would require the addition of staff, training and equipment.

Gill also said it would be unenforceable because “practical and legally defensible” methods of testing for all genetic modifications do not exist.

The bill, which was created by a “gut and replace” action by House Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Rep. Jessica Wooley, was eventually deferred.

(Wooley was recently confirmed by the Legislature as head of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.)

According to 2013 data from the US Department of Agriculture, many commodity crops grown in the US are predominately genetically engineered. That included 97% of sugar beets, 93% of soybeans and 90% of feed corn for animals.

As much as 85% of the papayas grown in Hawaii have been genetically modified to resist the ringspot virus.

Kauai and Hawaii counties have passed ordinances placing restrictions on the growing of GE crops. Both laws are being challenged in court.

In his testimony, Gill said that according to the FDA, there is “currently no conclusive scientific evidence of negative health effects associated with the consumption of genetically engineered food or food products as determined by the US Food and Drug Administration.”

Some opponents of GE labeling, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, say that despite the FDA’s position, such labels would lead consumers to believe that the products are unsafe.

The full text of the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act is available here.

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