Congress returns to Washington this week still struggling with the question of whether to create a federal label for foods with ingredients from genetically modified crops.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the issue of labeling GMO foods is a symbol of the American public’s current conflicts over science.
“Labeling is a complicated area,” Hamburg said Friday when the three former officials spoke at the “Vote Food 2016: Better Food, Better Health” conference at the Georgetown University Law School.
Hamburg, who headed the FDA from 2009 until last year, said she supports consumers’ desires to better understand what they eat. “But we need to have science-based approaches as to what the government would require as labeling,” she said.
Several lawmakers also have commented in the past couple of weeks about where the issue stands as Congress comes back to town. Lawmakers have been trying to craft a bill that would preempt a GMO labeling law in Vermont that goes into effect July 1. The Senate, however, has been divided on how to create a national label or system that informs people if the food product contains ingredients from GMO crops.
The Red River Farm Network reported last week that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., wants a two-year wait on mandatory GMO labeling, while Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., does not.
A spokeswoman for Roberts declined to comment on the Grassley statement.
Supporters of mandatory labels pushed back on the idea of delays or using technology such as smartphones to determine whether a food has ingredients from GMO crops.
“We have to be careful about watering it down because the public has high expectations. I don’t think you are going to find satisfaction on the part of the public until it is something other than a bar code,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, speaking to the Organic Trade Association just before Memorial Day.
Pingree also said, “I think we are making progress,” but that the issue may not be resolved by the time the Vermont labeling law is scheduled to go into effect.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who has introduced a federal labeling bill, said he agrees with the view that state-by-state labeling is a problem, because food producers’ warehouses may serve more than one state. But he said that for a federal label “to be authentic” it has to be on the package.
Merkley said the national label has to “meet the one-second test” in which a consumer can grab a product and immediately tell whether it contains genetically modified ingredients or not. He urged the organic food industry to “take your message loud and clear” to Congress that there has to be strong labeling.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the organic conference that if Congress cannot make the decisions about how to label for genetic modification, if members give him the authority, “I will be happy to make them.”
Merkley also told reporters he disagrees with Vilsack’s view that a bar code on a package would be sufficient. “A smartphone is not consumer-friendly,” Merkley said, referring to the “smart label” concept of using a bar code that could be scanned by a phone. “No mother or father pushing a kid” in a shopping cart will stop to look up the label, he added.
Dan Glickman, an Agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, noted at the Georgetown event that the conflict over GMOs and science is part of “a growing lack of trust by Americans in their institutions.”
Glickman said he eats foods with genetically modified ingredients, but added, “We have to make sure we have a modern regulatory system. These issues do require a regulatory system that people have trust in.”
He added that the farm community had not done a good job of explaining the value of GMOs to consumers.
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.