In the midst of a lively public debate over the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products, the USDA revealed that it is developing a voluntary government certification for foods free of genetically modified ingredients. In a letter to USDA employees, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the voluntary certification was being offered at the request of an unidentified company.
GMOs are well established in the marketplace, and may be engineered for attributes such as resistance to herbicides or pests.
The USDA’s move has raised the ire of consumer advocate groups who believe that labeling for GMOs should be mandatory. “We feel that voluntary marketing claims are not substitute for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods,” says Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs, Center for Food Safety. According to O’Neil, the USDA’s weaker voluntary labeling program would remove the need for a stronger, nationwide, mandatory labeling law.
Congress is currently debating the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would establish a federal labeling standard for foods with genetically modified ingredients overseen by the FDA. That legislation, too, has come under fire from consumer advocates for not being tough enough. “Only with national, uniform labeling standards are consumers going to be able to see the full suite of information about what is in their products when it comes to GMOs,” said O’Neil.
According to O’Neil, 64 countries worldwide, as well as the states of Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have laws requiring GMOs in food products to be labeled.
A stricter labeling standard has been introduced in the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, sponsored by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR).
The FDA has maintained that genetically engineered foods do not differ from other foods in any meaningful way, and do not present any additional safety concerns compared to foods developed through traditional plant breeding. Therefore, it claims there is no basis for labeling GMOs.