On Monday, 10 senators and 45 House representatives sent a bicameral Congressional letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), supporting a legal petition filed by the nonprofit Center for Food Safety that asks the FDA to require labeling of genetically engineered food products. Referring to the current FDA regulatory regime for food labeling as “inadequate” and using “19th century concepts to regulate 21st century food technologies,” the letter urged the FDA to require labeling that “is done in nearly 50 countries throughout the world.” Japan, Australia, China, Russia, Brazil, and many European countries currently require labeling for genetically engineered food products.
The legal petition at issue in this letter, filed in October of last year, has been supported by more than 400 health and consumer organizations and businesses and has prompted nearly a million public comments in support of the petition. The petition argues that consumers require more complete labeling in order to make informed decisions about what they are ingesting.
The current regime with regard to genetically engineered foods is based on the FDA’s 1992 policy statement, which allowed generically modified foods to be marketed without labeling them as such because they were not “materially” different from other foods. According to the bicameral Congressional letter, this 1992 policy “severely limited” what the FDA considered to be “material,” limiting it to changes in food that could be recognized by taste, smell, or other senses. Since then, “novel food technologies” have emerged, like genetic engineering, that have “slipped underneath [the] FDA’s limited threshold for ‘materiality’ because such technologies make silent, genetic, and molecular changes to food that are not capable of being detected by human senses.”
Notably, the FDA’s 2009 guidance documents to the industry merely re-applied this food labeling policy to genetically engineered animals, and thus failed to re-visit its genetic engineering standard of nearly two decades. As reflected by Monday’s letter, Congress found this to be particularly troubling, “given [the] FDA’s current consideration of a [genetically engineered] salmon that would be the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption.”
The bicameral Congressional letter strikes the same chord as the Center for Food Safety’s legal petition and its coalition partner’s Just Label It! campaign – namely, that consumers have the right to make informed choices about the food that they eat and that basic labeling information “empowers them” to make these choices. Absent a label that says that a product is genetically engineered, consumers cannot choose for themselves whether they believe this information to be important and, accordingly, whether they want to be consuming these foods.
The safety of genetically engineered foods and the push for full disclosure with regard to food products have been topics of interest in the industry for years. The FDA has deemed genetically engineered food products to be as safe as their unmodified counterparts, but others have argued that there has not been enough testing done to deem this true. We will keep you posted on any response from the FDA and any other notable developments.