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House subcommittee discusses labeling options

WASHINGTON -- Compared with the passions that genetic engineering of seeds and genetically modified foods generate in most public discussions, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a remarkably calm and quiet hearing on Dec. 10 o...

WASHINGTON -- Compared with the passions that genetic engineering of seeds and genetically modified foods generate in most public discussions, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a remarkably calm and quiet hearing on Dec. 10 on the Food and Drug Administration's regulation and possible labeling of genetically modified food ingredients.

Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., the subcommittee chairman, said in an opening statement that "food labeling is a matter of interstate commerce and is therefore clearly a federal issue that rightfully resides with Congress and the FDA.

"I'm concerned that a patchwork of 50 separate state labeling schemes would be impractical and unworkable," Pitts said. "Such a system would create confusion among consumers and result in higher prices and fewer options."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a liberal who is retiring, said he thinks unless there is a compelling policy reason, Congress should "maintain the ability of states to make a decision that is different from the federal government."

But Waxman also said he is "concerned that mandatory GE labeling could be inherently misleading."

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Under the current system, Waxman said, "If consumers want to avoid GE foods they can.

"They can buy organic foods, which, by law, cannot contain GE ingredients -- or they can search out the foods that manufacturers have certified and labeled as nonGE," he said. "That more targeted information may, in fact, be more usable."

Michael Landa, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, assured a series of subcommittee members that FDA believes food made from genetically modified foods are safe.

Landa said the FDA maintains a consultation process on genetic engineering because there is the possibility of creating "a material difference."

He said if a company proposed to take a gene from a peanut and put it in another plant, FDA would be concerned about the possibility of allergenicity, which requires labeling.

The Obama administration, he noted, has no position on the labeling of genetically modified foods.

FDA requires labeling foods that have been irradiated, Landa said, because at the time irradiation started the agency thought "it could change some processes in food."

FDA has proposed ending irradiation labeling, but has never finalized that proposal.

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In general, he said, FDA does not require labeling "on method of production alone" because the agency has not deemed it important.

Asked about charges that FDA scientists are too close to industry, Landa said, "We are civil servants. We try to make decisions to the best of our ability depending on what the science tells us."

On a panel of advocates on both sides of the labeling issue, Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist and researcher in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California at Davis, defined genetic engineering as "moving useful genes from one species into another."

Van Eenennaam noted that researchers in California, Texas and Florida are trying to find a way to use genetic engineering to make oranges resistant to citrus greening.

Tom Dempsey, president and CEO of the Snack Food Association, said state-by-state labeling regimes would cause tremendous problems in providing products to the various states, and the worst affected would be small snack food makers.

Stacey Forshee, a Kansas farmer and American Farm Bureau Federation representative, called on Congress to pass H.R. 4432, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.

Introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., the bill would require FDA to label a genetically modified food if the agency believed it necessary, but would preempt state labeling.

Forshee said the use of genetically modified seed has allowed her and her husband to avoid spraying so many chemicals to protect their crops from pests.

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Kate Webb, the assistant majority leader in the Vermont House of Representatives and author of that state's labeling, urged the subcommittee not to pass the Pompeo bill and instead establish a national labeling plan for genetically modified foods.

Scott Faber, the senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, also said national labeling is preferable, but without a national system, the states should be able to require the labeling of genetically modified foods.

Webb and Faber said they were not taking the position that genetically modified foods are inherently dangerous, only that there should be labeling so consumers can decide whether to buy foods with genetically modified ingredients.

But Faber also said the unregulated term "natural" is causing confusion with consumers who "think they are using their buying power to improve the world around them."

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