A controversial bill that seeks to block mandatory GMO food labeling by individual U.S. states was the subject of a hearing held yesterday by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. Amid the testimonies, one key question emerged time and again: Are genetically modified foods "natural"?

Activists in several states have been pushing for mandatory labels, arguing that the safety of GMOs has not been sufficiently proven and that people have a right to know the contents of the food they eat. Opponents of labeling — citing multiple scientific studies that confirm GMOs pose no threat to public health or the environment — say such labels are unnecessary and discriminatory, since they would stigmatize food producers who use genetically modified ingredients.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), would give ultimate authority of GMO labeling to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which favors a voluntary approach to the issue. If passed, the legislation would effectively serve as a federal override of any laws enacted at the state level. Upon sponsoring the bill, Pompeo said:

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"We've got a number of states that are attempting to put together a patchwork quilt of food labeling requirements with respect to genetic modification of foods. That makes it enormously difficult to operate a food system. Some of the campaigns in some of these states aren't really to inform consumers but rather aimed at scaring them. What this bill attempts to do is set a standard."

Unless the FDA is presented with hard evidence that a GMO product poses a threat to public health, mandatory labeling is not within its purview. That's because the U.S. approach to regulating genetically modified food is premised on the assumption that regulation should focus on the nature of the products, rather than the process in which they were produced. In a 1992 policy statement, the FDA explained that it found no basis to conclude that "foods derived from new plant varieties using genetic engineering techniques, as a class, differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way or pose any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding."

But if GMO opponents can't convince that FDA to change its policy, a more plausible "Plan B" might be convincing the agency to prohibit any genetically modified foods from labeling themselves as "natural."

Natural Selection

Vermont is the first state to have passed a law (Act 120) that makes GMO labeling mandatory. The legislation also prohibits the use of the term "natural" for products produced or partially produced with genetic engineering.

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Kate Webb, the Assistant Majority Leader in the Vermont House of Representatives, who was a lead sponsor of Act 120, testified at yesterday's hearing that:

It is about transparency and truth in labeling. Even though the World Heath Organization defines genetically modified foods as "foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally;" and Monsanto defines Genetically Engineered Organisms as "plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs," many genetically engineered products continue to carry the word "natural" or variations of this word on their labels. I believe this is deceptive.

Similarly, Scott Faber, the Senior Vice President of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, noted that:

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More than 70 percent of packaged foods contain genetically modified ingredients, including commonly used oils, flours, proteins, sweeteners, and preservatives. But, the widespread use of misleading claims like "natural" have led many consumers to believe "natural" foods are GMO-free.

A recent survey by NMI [National Marketing Institute] found that 58 percent of respondents believed that "natural" foods are GMO-free. A similar survey for by Consumer Reports' found that 64 percent of respondents believed that "natural" foods are GMO-free. Currently, FDA policy does not explicitly prohibit the use of genetically modified ingredients in foods labeled as "natural." Many so-called "natural products" recently tested by Consumer Reports contained GMOs.

Faber also raised the objection that the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act" merely requires the FDA to review the agency's current definition for "natural" and does not prohibit the use of the word "natural" on foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

The FDA, however, doesn't have a formal definition of what constitutes "natural." The agency's informal definition is that "nothing artificial or synthetic ... has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food."

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Publicly, the FDA states that, "From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth." But critics of the FDA, on both sides of the GMO debate, aren't buying that argument, and are urging the agency to adopt a formal definition the will clear up the regulatory uncertainty.

As an article in the George Washington Law Review observes, the FDA has demonstrated that it has sufficient expertise to apply food science to this issue. The agency has done so before with equally vague terms:

For example, under the FDA's definition of "fresh," a loaf of bread that just came out of the oven may not be labeled "fresh" if it contains a certain chemical used to inhibit mold, but a loaf of bread without this chemical sitting out for two full days may be labeled as such. This is seemingly contrary to consumers' everyday understanding of "fresh," but the FDA found the definition proper for the purpose of labeling.

The Coming Battle

Meanwhile, opponents of mandatory labeling argue that a solution already exists. While the FDA might not yet have a formal definition of "natural," the U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits GMOs from labeling themselves as "organic," noting that:

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A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.

Proponents of mandatory labeling, however, argue that's not good enough, since consumers might not be aware that the term "organic" bars the use of genetically modified ingredients.

As such, the debate over the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act" promises to be a prominent legislative battle in the coming year. The most intriguing hearings are yet to come, as scientific experts are invited to weigh in with their views on the safety of GMOs and whether they can be defined as "natural." After three years of state-level referendums that have cost $100 million, the fight over labeling genetically modified foods is shifting to Washington.