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Food Industry to Fire Preemptive GMO Strike

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The giants of the U.S. food industry who have spent millions fighting state-by-state efforts to mandate new labels for genetically modified organisms are taking a page from their opponents: pushing for a federal GMO law.

But the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents such food and beverage leaders as ConAgra, PepsiCo and Kraft, isn't exactly joining the anti-GMO movement. It's pushing an industry-friendly, watered-down law with a voluntary federal standard - a move that food activists see as a power grab by an industry that has tried to kill GMO labeling initiatives every step of the way.

The most powerful players in the food industry say they are simply trying to find a national solution for GMO labeling, rather than having to navigate a patchwork of dozens of state laws for every packaged food item on the grocery shelf. According to a discussion draft of GMA's proposed bill obtained by POLITICO, labeling standards would not be mandatory and the industry would submit to more FDA oversight.

The draft provides the first concrete look of what the food industry is asking for from Congress.

The push for a softer national standard on GMO labeling comes as consumer interest in biotech foods has blown up into an intense national conversation, and the food industry is clearly trying to get out ahead of a strong, vocal movement pushing strict labeling requirements in multiple states around the country.

"We believe that it's important for Congress to engage and provide FDA with the ability to have a national standard" on GMO food labeling, Louis Finkel, head of government affairs for GMA, said. "A 50-state patchwork of regulations is irresponsible."

GMA's proposal is aimed at protecting its members from having to fight a series of state labeling efforts as several states, including Colorado and Oregon, look to move forward with initiatives in 2014. The push for state-level action has prompted food, beverage and biotech companies to shell out big bucks to quash such efforts, which has also earned them some unfavorable press coverage.

Two states - Connecticut and Maine - passed GMO-labeling mandates last year, but both have strict trigger clauses, requiring four other states with a combined population of more than 20 million to implement similar measures before they take effect. Ballot initiatives in California in 2012 and Washington in 2013 were defeated, though by voting margins scarcely above 2 percentage points and only after the food and biotechnology industries spent almost $70 million in campaign ads.

"We've fought a mandatory label at the state level because we believe that a mandatory label misinforms consumers" by implying that there is something wrong with the product, explained Finkel, GMA's top lobbyist.