U.S. GMO labelling efforts change course after California defeat

Reuters / The failure Nov. 6 of a California ballot initiative that would have mandated labelling of genetically modified foods is not a death knell for those seeking nationwide labelling, U.S. labelling proponents said.

President Barack Obama’s re-election could be a boost, as he is seen, in general terms, as being supportive of labelling. Still, efforts to force change at a federal level could face an uphill climb.

“The federal effort is a monumental task without a state victory somewhere,” said Michele Simon, a public health attorney from California.

New state labelling initiatives are planned for Washington state and Oregon. Beyond that, the action now shifts to Washington, D.C. and efforts to force change at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has primary regulatory oversight for food and food additives.

A citizen’s petition is pending with the agency demanding a re-examination of its policy against labelling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. More than one million people signed on, the most ever for a petition to the FDA, and backers say the effort has been aided by the publicity surrounding the California initiative.

“When we first filed our petition with the FDA over a year ago… it was only a handful of Washington insiders who fully understood what we were talking about,” said Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm organic yogurt company, and chairman of the “Just Label It” campaign. “Now average folks are well educated on this issue.”

Supporters of the federal labelling action include organic and natural food companies, environmental and consumer groups.

The petition, filed in October 2011, is the first step in a strategy that could lead to a federal lawsuit against the FDA, said Andrew Kimbrell, the lead attorney with the Center for Food Safety, who wrote the legal petition.

Kimbrell said passage of the California measure would have provided leverage for the federal effort. Its 53 per cent to 47 per cent defeat in progressive California was a setback, but the legal strategy with the FDA does not depend on state passage.

Rather, CFS hopes to prove that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, dating back to 1938, is being too narrowly interpreted by FDA and treats modern-day GMO technology in a way that does not comply with the intent of the law to protect consumers.

Genetically modified crops, which have had their DNA spliced with genetic material from other species, have been around for 16 years. Popular biotech crops can survive treatments of weedkiller and are toxic to insects that feed on the crops. And most processed foods sold in the United States contain some GMO corn, soybeans or other crops.

The CFS petition calls on the FDA to declare that molecular or genetic alterations are “material” changes relevant to consumers. The FDA’s current policy, set in 1992, holds that foods derived from genetically modified plants were substantially equivalent to those produced through conventional means.

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