By Carey Gillam
Jan 13 (Reuters) - The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food companies, is preparing a petition to the chief U.S. food safety regulator and a push in Congress to require changes in oversight and labeling of new genetically modified foods, an association leader said Monday.
The double-pronged strategy, which the group expects roll out early this year, is aimed at squelching state-by-state efforts to mandate labeling of foods containing biotech crops, and at the same time setting a standard that among other things would authorize GMO foods to be touted as "natural."
GMO and natural labeling issues have prompted scores of lawsuits around the country and a mix of practices by different food companies. More than two dozen states are examining GMO labeling laws, and state ballot measures in California and Washington have cost the food industry more than $70 million in campaign spending to defeat.
"We should not be making food safety labeling decisions through a patchwork of state laws," Louis Finkel, executive vice president of government affairs for the GMA, said in an interview.
Finkel said his group has been working with a broad coalition, including biotech crop developers, to put together its legislative and labeling proposals. He would not say which lawmakers the group was working with on the legislation but that it should be introduced soon. The legislation would mandate consistent labeling of non-GMO and GMO foods, while nullifying state laws not identical to the federal law.
Another provision would make it mandatory for biotech crop developers to notify the Food and Drug Administration before they introduce a new genetically modified crop to the marketplace - currently that notification is voluntary.
"Making it mandatory gives consumers greater confidence," said Finkel.
The bill also would set specific time frames in which the FDA has to respond to mandatory notifications.
The FDA currently engages in what it calls "consultations" with crop developers. The agency then typically issues a letter to those crop developers reminding them that it is a developer's responsibility to ensure its products are safe.
The legislation would not change that aspect of oversight but allow the FDA to specify "any special labeling" to protect health and safety or to "prevent the label of bioengineered food from being false or misleading."
The bill would also allow food manufacturers to label their food products as "GMO-free" under certain conditions,
Manufacturers would not be allowed to imply that a food is less safe or more safe because of the absence or presence of biotech ingredients.
Biotech crops currently on the market include corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets that have been genetically altered to repel pests or tolerate direct spraying of herbicides. Those crops are used in a vast array of food products and the companies that develop them say the crops are safe. Many scientific studies back those claims.
But there are also studies showing links to human and animal health problems, and environmental damage. Last October, an international coalition of scientists declared there still was no consensus in the global scientific community about the safety of genetically modified crops, which were first commercialized in 1996.
The GMA is also pushing the FDA to develop a federal definition of the term "natural" on food packaging, and to authorize foods containing biotech ingredients to be labeled as natural.
"Consumers deserve to understand what that word natural means on a package," Finkel said.
Finkel said he had no criticism of a recent move by General Mills to declare its original Cheerios breakfast cereal to be GMO-free and that it was merely a "marketplace decision."
Critics of GMO crops said the proposed legislation was aimed at misleading consumers and covering up concerns about biotech crops.
"Concerned citizens want mandatory labeling of GMOs and don't want natural foods containing GMOs to be labeled as natural," said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. "I doubt seriously that they can get this through."