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Supporters of genetically modified food labeling shift focus to Congress, federal agencies

Advocates for the labeling of genetically modified food are turning their sights on the federal government after spending the last couple of years waging their campaign largely in the states.

Yesterday, more than 200 organizations and businesses wrote to President Obama urging him to require that foods containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such. Advocates and their supporters in Congress also yesterday pushed for the passage of national legislation requiring labeling.

"This fight is shifting to the nation's capital," Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group and executive director of the Just Label It campaign, said yesterday at a Capitol Hill briefing. "Until, I think, last month, this was really a fight that was largely being waged in the states and state capitals. But clearly this debate has now shifted to Washington, D.C."

Prompted by worries over the safety of genetically engineered foods, a coalition of food safety advocates and organic food producers has focused efforts on labeling for the past several years. The movement got a major boost in 2012, when a battle was waged in California over an ultimately unsuccessful ballot measure that would have required labeling.

Since then, more than 20 state legislatures have considered GE food labels. As of now, only two states have approved labeling; neither the Connecticut nor Maine regulations go into effect, though, until a handful of contiguous states also enact labeling laws. A high-profile ballot measure failed in Washington state this past fall that would have required labeling.

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Throughout the campaigns on the state level, food manufacturers have poured millions into anti-labeling campaigns, citing the added costs that labeling would require. Led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, they say there's no scientific basis for requiring labels on genetically engineered food.

The push for action at the national level arose out of several factors but most recently because GMA began working on its own federal solution to the labeling issue, Faber said.

Supporters of the labeling movement also now believe they have reached a "tipping point" where momentum and public opinion are in their favor, said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who is also an organic farmer. Various polls have found that the vast majority of Americans support labeling.

"The fact that states are lining up to pass it in their state legislatures, that these fights required so much money from the other side and turnaround polling, the fact that grocery manufacturers clearly are concerned and want to get out there and pre-empt the states, they want to fight these battles -- each one of these things sort of adds on and you get to a moment where" the support becomes "overwhelming," Pingree said.

In a statement provided yesterday by spokesman Brian Kennedy, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said its No. 1 priority was to ensure that consumers have access to safe and affordable food.

"That is why we are working with Congress on a federal GMO labeling solution that would require a label on foods containing GMO ingredients if the FDA -- our nation's foremost food safety authority -- determines there is a health or safety risk," GMA said. "That approach will eliminate consumer confusion, avoid an unnecessary and confusing 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling laws and provide consumers with confidence in the safety of the food supply."

The Food and Drug Administration has not updated its policy of not requiring labeling for GE foods since the early 1990s.

Labeling advocates are fighting their battle on two fronts in the nation's capital. On one side, they are pushing the FDA to mandate that food companies disclose the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in food.

Advocates are also pushing for passage of a bill introduced last year by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would compel the FDA to make the changes.

In their letter yesterday, the 200 organizations and companies called on Obama to fulfill a 2007 campaign promise to require the labeling of GE food.

"While we will continue to support state-level labeling efforts, we believe there should be a mandatory labeling system," the groups wrote.

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Amy's Kitchen, Annie's Homegrown, Applegate, Stonyfield Farm and Nature's Path Foods were among the companies signing on to the effort.

Co-sponsors of the GE labeling bill said they would also continue to oppose efforts by the food industry to voluntarily label genetically engineered food ingredients.

"I'm tired of voluntary efforts because they never materialize," Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said.

The safety of genetically modified foods and whether they are any different than non-GE foods remain at the heart of the GMO labeling debate.

Agriculture and food organizations have recently been more proactive on promoting GMOs; in July, biotechnology crop companies launched GMO Answers to dispel claims about the risks of eating genetically engineered foods.

"What we're finding is that if consumers who have concerns can discuss directly with a farmer who uses biotechnology about why he uses it, what the benefits are, we find that there's great acceptance," American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said this week. "We're actually making progress in terms of pointing out the benefits of biotechnology for now and the future."

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