GMO Hearing

By Peter B. Matz

Yesterday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health held a hearing to examine FDA’s role in the regulation of genetically engineered foods (commonly, but inaccurately, referred to as “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs”).  Congressman Mike Pompeo’s (R-KS) Safe and Affordable Food Act (H.R. 4432), which would preempt state GMO labeling laws and require labeling only if a food product were deemed unsafe or materially different by the FDA, was also a major focus of the hearing.  While the bill will die at the end of this Congress, it is expected to be reintroduced in the 114th Congress.  Following are a few key takeaways:

  • There was general consensus among Committee Members from both parties that a federal GMO labeling standard applied nationwide would be more sensible than state-by-state regulations.
  • When Rep. Pompeo asked the second panel, which included two GMO labeling advocates, to answer with a yes or no whether they agreed GE foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts, all four witnesses answered, “yes.”
  • Several Members, on a bipartisan basis, expressed concern that a mandatory label disclosing the inclusion of GE ingredients which present no health or safety risk could be inherently misleading.  For example, Full Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (CA) argued that a label could unintentionally appear to imply that the foods are somehow less safe than conventional varieties.
  • Michael Landa, FDA’s Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, discussed the consultation process in which FDA reviews GMO foods before they go to market.  While it is technically voluntary, he explained that biotechnology companies comply with it because they know farmers will not buy GM seeds unless FDA has given the manufacturer a “no questions letter,” because they would never want to risk growing a product that FDA could later deem unsafe.
  • While the two GMO labeling proponents argued that consumers have a right to know what is in their food to be able to make informed decisions, University of California-Davis’ Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam asserted this issue is not about consumers’ right to know what is in their food, but rather how the food was produced.  “There is no science-based reason to single out foods derived from and feed crops that were developed using the GE breeding method for mandatory process-based labeling,” she stated.  Her written testimony is a powerful endorsement of agricultural biotechnology rebutting the concept of and need for mandatory GMO labeling.
  • In his opening statement, Chairman Joe Pitts (PA) quoted President Obama, who said “advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers” and that “investment in enhanced biotechnology is an essential component of the solution to some of our planet’s most pressing agricultural problems.”

The witness list, written testimony and archived webcast of the hearing can be found here.