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Mandatory Labels for Genetically Improved Foods?
The Environmental Working Group, a formidable environmental watchdog, has filed a petition with the FDA seeking mandatory labeling for genetically modified, aka genetically improved, foods. Just Label It, a coalition of food processors which do not use genetically improved ingredients, is a co-signatory to the petition.

Opposition to the EWG/Just Label It petition is broad-based and includes the State Department has already warned that the labeling would scare consumers since "if you label something there's an implication there's something wrong with it." Among the labeling proposal's harms if it were adopted is that would lead to trade fights which hurt American agriculture and consumers.

Aside from international legal obligations, there are two substantial statutory hurdles that the petition would have to clear before the FDA could give their agreement, the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) and the Data Quality Act (DQA).

The PRA sets prerequisites that must be met before a federal agency can require any product label. The requirements include the agency certifying that the information on the label has "practical utility." Beyond the PRA, the DQA and its implementing guidance sets detailed quality standards for the label as well as for any data and findings supporting the labeling.

Because of the PRA and DQA, the absence of data demonstrating harm from genetically improved foods could make it quite difficult for FDA to approve the petition.

The companies in the Just Label It coalition are simply engaging in an old-fashioned process called "rent-seeking," an economic term which refers to gaming the regulatory system for private gain. As the Economist explained, "as they do not create any value, rent-seeking activities can impose large costs on an economy."

Although EWG and Just Label It have a campaign to obtain signatures in support of their petition, it should be noted that any such signatures, along with public opinion polls, have no role in determining whether the statutory requirements for a labeling regulation have been met.

Since it is science, not opinion, which would be required to establish a genetically improved labeling regulation, it could be argued that the resources of the food processor coalition and EWG would better off spent on gathering quality data supporting their position. On the other hand, given the challenge of obtaining such data, it's no surprise that the NGO and its industry supporters are focused on collecting signatures.

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