Senate Agriculture Committee leaders have released a new federal mandatory labeling bill for genetically engineered food.
These Senators are trading a state mandatory labeling law for a federal mandatory labeling law.
If passed, the federal government will make it national policy to mislead consumers and legitimize bad science. (Rather than just the small state of Vermont, which will be doing so soon.)
Senate Agriculture Democrats on their Twitter page are touting how the bill will cover all 50 states and 25,000 more products than Vermont. However, the bill would allow the use of alternative disclosure methods, such as bar codes, as opposed to just on-package labels, as in Vermont.
This entire move is in response to Vermont’s mandatory labeling law that goes into effect on July 1, 2016. The food industry argues that Vermont’s labeling requirements would dictate labeling for all states because the logistics and costs are too great to have multiple state labels. Of course, they don’t address why they just don’t stop selling in Vermont.
The food industry has a legitimate concern regarding labeling costs. However, these costs pale in comparison to the much bigger problems with mandatory labeling in general; problems that are made far worse by the federal government ensuring that labeling requirements exist in all states and providing legitimacy to mandatory labeling.
In a recent Heritage Foundation paper I wrote the following about the problems with mandatory labeling, including a federal mandate:
1. Uses the force of government to compel speech. The government, whether federal, state, or local, should not be compelling companies to engage in speech that is misleading to consumers by giving the false impression that there is something wrong with genetically engineered food. Such a label communicates the process by which the food was developed and has nothing to do with its nutrition or safety. This compelled speech may very well involve First Amendment implications.
2. Legitimizes bad science. The government, by requiring a label, would be conveying to consumers that there is something wrong with genetic engineering. This is exactly the opposite of what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded. Major scientific organizations from the World Health Organization to the National Academy of Sciences agree that genetically engineered foods for sale are safe. This problem exists regardless of how the information is conveyed, whether on a package or through a bar code.
3. Undermines a critical technology. Mandatory labeling would likely have a negative effect on genetic engineering and perpetuate myths surrounding genetically engineered food that could harm its development.
4. Hurts agriculture. Genetic engineering is widely used in agriculture. Genetically engineered crops include alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. About half of U.S. cropland (169 million acres) was used to grow genetically engineered corn, cotton, and soybeans in 2013. Policymakers should be aware of the harm that labeling would create for farmers and states that grow a significant amount of genetically engineered crops, as well as for consumers.
5. Creates a dangerous precedent. If this type of information must be disclosed, where will the line be drawn on what other information must be disclosed? Special interest groups, for example, would seek to use packaging to convey certain information to push their agendas. One only needs to look to the recent Dietary Guidelines process to see how environmental interests use food policy to push their agenda; the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee considered factors like sustainability and global warming in recommending what people should eat.
Fortunately, the full Senate hasn’t yet passed this misguided bill, and the House will have its say on the matter. In fact, last week, House Republican leadership released a plan for regulatory reform as part of its policy project entitled “A Better Way.” This plan, developed by a regulation task force, indicates an understanding of the problems with mandatory labeling:
Despite the need for this technology [agricultural biotechnology], a vocal minority of citizens are creating doubt in the minds of many consumers and policymakers through misinformation about the safety of genetically engineered inputs. This misinformation is influencing policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels and could threaten our farmers’ ability to feed an ever-growing population and increase the cost of food for consumers.
The task force’s solution is House legislation that passed last year, H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. This legislation blocks state mandatory labeling and more importantly doesn’t create any type of federal mandatory labeling; it creates a voluntary labeling scheme (a government-created voluntary system is unnecessary and problematic but not nearly as bad as a mandatory scheme).
If Congress passes a federal mandate, there’s likely no turning back. It will have long-term and possibly permanent repercussions for genetic engineering, farmers, and consumers, both in the United States and around the world. The full Senate can stop this, and if necessary, the House can as well.