Voters in Washington state Tuesday rejected a ballot initiative that would have required the labeling of food and beverage products made with genetically modified food ingredients (GMOs). The measure was defeated by a 55 to 45 percent split, ending a move that would have made Washington the nation’s first state to require GMO labeling. A similar measure, Proposition 37, was defeated in California last year.
Currently, 70-80% of the nation’s food and beverage products include ingredients produced using genetic modification (GM) technology. These products have been part of the food supply for over 20 years. Essentially, farmers and food manufacturers use GM technology to add desirable traits from one plant to another without adding unnatural substances or chemicals.
Nationally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets standards for food labeling based on extensive scientific review. The FDA does not require GMO foods to be labeled because it has found neither health risks nor any material difference between GM and non-GM foods. Other U.S. regulatory agencies that study and monitor food safety concur, and many scientific bodies, such as the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences, have also concluded that foods and beverages containing GM ingredients are materially no different than foods without them.
However, several states have introduced ballot initiatives to create state-based labeling requirements, which could conflict with FDA standards. In addition to the Washington and California proposals, efforts are underway for a 2014 measure on the ballot in Oregon. One state, Connecticut, has actually passed a labeling measure, but it is severely limited by a requirement that its provisions cannot go into effect unless similar measures are passed in several contiguous states.
Of course, state-by-state measures would be a special burden on commerce. If requirements differ from state to state, packaging would need to vary across state lines. Federal legislation that would create a national standard, with the FDA as the chief safety arbiter, would be a better alternative.
In the EU, all GMOs are deemed “new foods,” which must go through an extensive, case-by-case evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), roughly equivalent to the FDA in the US. EFSA’s recommendations must go to the European Commission, which then drafts proposals for granting or refusing authorization. The proposals, in turn, are submitted to the Commission’s standing committee on food safety. If accepted, the authorization can be adopted by the EC outright or through a review and vote by its Council of Agricultural Ministers.
Each EU member state also has the right to restrict or prohibit the use or sale of GMOs within their borders. In each case, the EC is then required to investigate the matter. Further adjudication, if needed, is completed by state or EU courts. The EU has approved about 50 GMOs foods so far.
For GMO foods entering the EU, regulations are aimed at providing freedom of choice to consumers. All food containing greater than 0.9% of approved GMOs must be labeled.