The effort is an attempt to head off state-by-state efforts in the US to require mandatory labeling. Recent ballot initiatives in California and Washington state failed, but several state legislatures are considering labeling requirements, and opponents of engineered ingredients are aggressively pushing for new laws in several states.
The move comes as consumers demand to know more about what's in their food. There's very little science that says genetically engineered foods are unsafe. But opponents say there's too much unknown about seeds that are altered in labs to have certain traits, and that consumers have a right to know if they are eating them. The seeds are engineered for a variety of reasons, many of them to resist herbicides or insects.
According to Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the food industry's main trade group, the decision on labels should rest with the Food and Drug Administration, which is set up to assess the safety of foods. "It does not serve national food safety policy to leave these issues to political campaigns," she says.
The grocery manufacturers recently announced a partnership with 28 farm and food industry groups to push for the legislation. The groups include the National Corn Growers Association, the National Restaurant Association and the National Beverage Association, all industries that have seen pushback from consumers over modified ingredients.
The groups say mandatory labels would mislead consumers into thinking that engineered ingredients are unsafe.
The state laws could also create a complicated patchwork of labeling laws that would "increase, rather than reduce, consumer confusion," says Kraig Naasz of the American Frozen Food Institute, another member of the coalition.
The industries are lobbying members of Congress to introduce and pass a bill that would require FDA to create a voluntary label that would take precedence over any state laws. They are also pushing for FDA to do a safety review of new genetically engineered ingredients before they are sold in food. So far, FDA has not found safety issues with modified ingredients.
Theresa Eisenman, a spokeswoman for FDA, said food manufacturers are already allowed to label their foods as free of genetically modified ingredients. She said the agency "recognizes and appreciates" consumer interest in the issue.
It is unclear whether there is support for voluntary labels in Congress. Many lawmakers from farm states have defended the technology. Last May, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. that would have allowed states to require labeling of genetically modified foods.
Maine and Connecticut have already enacted labeling laws for engineered foods, but they won't go into effect until other states in the region follow suit. And Oregon may be the next state to consider a ballot measure on the issue.