While the questions surrounding the benefits and safety of genetically modified food are complicated and contentious, the question of labeling GMO food shouldn’t be.

More and more states are trying to tackle the issue independently, but it’s time for national legislation to require labeling.

“We’re not asking for a skull and crossbones,” chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio said in December. “We’re not asking for a label on the front that says ‘danger.’ If things are dangerous in our food system we take them off the market. We are not asking them to take GMOs off the market.”

Berg Pushes GMO Right-To-Know Issue

A child holds a GMO labeling sign in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during a 2011 rally.

Alexis Baden-Mayer/Flickr

Colicchio joined 700 other chefs in petitioning Congress to pass pro-labeling legislation, arguing that consumers have a right to know what is in the things they eat.

Like millions of Americans, they are looking for transparency. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of GMO labeling and such a simple and earnest request should be respected by politicians.

This could be the year. GMO labeling is the subject of two opposing bills likely to be introduced in Cogress, including one with support from members of the Hawaii delegation.

While one of the bills would provide consumers with the information they want, the other is basically designed to head off the move toward labeling.

First to the obstructionist legislation:

With considerable help and support from the food, agriculture and biotech industries, Rep.  Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) has promised to reintroduce his Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 4432) early this year. Pompeo’s bill was first introduced in April 2014, but recently enjoyed a “boost,” according to Politico, when several Democrats rallied around the bill during a December hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Roughly 20 states across the country — including Hawaii — have taken up the issue of mandatory labeling of genetically engineered products, but Pompeo’s bill would make use of the Constitution’s supremacy clause, nipping such a patchwork, state-by-state effort in the bud.

By making the FDA the sole authority for mandatory labeling of GMO foods, Pompeo’s bill would trump state efforts while doing little else to change the status quo. The industry-friendly bill would only require labeling if foods are found to be unsafe or materially different from non-GMO foods — a distinction that the FDA is not likely to make. The bill instead emphasizes voluntary “GMO-free” labeling.

While Pompeo’s bill does not yet have a Senate companion, it does have money, influence and a Republican-controlled Congress behind it.

And now to the alternative:

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio’s (D-Ore.) widely-supported Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which died in committee almost two years ago, is enjoying a renaissance as the only opposition to Pompeo’s bill.

Hawaii’s Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are co-sponsors.

Their bill would require clear labeling on any food that was genetically engineered or that contains genetically engineered ingredients.

Since the FDA doesn’t recognize genetically engineered foods as materially different from their non-modified counterparts (and hasn’t since the 1990s, when GMO foods were introduced), the Right-to-Know Act would require the FDA to update its policy and label foods accordingly.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recognizes a material distinction between the two, so it seems appropriate that the FDA’s policies also acknowledge a difference. While the FDA considers GMO foods to be safe with no known adverse health effects, more than 60 countries around the world require labels for genetically modified foods.

This is hardly too much to ask, according to Scott Faber of Just Label It.

A modest disclosure on the back of food packages,” he testified at the aforementioned December hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, “will not only give consumers basic information about what’s in their food and how it was produced, but will also cure the consumer confusion caused by the widespread use of misleading claims like ‘natural.’”

So far, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut are the only states to have passed legislation requiring labeling, but Maine and Connecticut’s laws have difficult “trigger clauses,” which means their laws won’t go into effect unless neighboring states also pass legislation. Vermont’s law will take effect in mid-2016 but is expected to be challenged aggressively in courts.

In January of last year, Hawaii lawmakers proposed Senate Bill 2736, which would have required labeling on all food that has genetically engineered material. That bill died an unceremonious death in committee, and it seems unlikely that lawmakers will resurrect the issue this year since a federal bill would make the endeavor null and void.

Let’s hope Schatz and Gabbard can help the right bill move forward.

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