After spending millions of dollars to fight mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in California and dozens of other states, large food companies have moved the fight to the federal level.

The GMO fight is expensive. California and more than two dozen other states are considering mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. The food industry has spent more than $70 million to quash those high profile efforts in places like California and Washington State.

Now big food is making its presence felt at the U.S. Capitol.

The train that runs under the Capitol grounds brings lawmakers to work in the Senate and the lobbyist follow. Louis Finkel is one of them and he’s been busy. He’s with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents about three hundred food companies. The association is suggesting legislation that would make GMO labeling voluntary nationwide. It would also require food manufacturers to report new GMO strains to the Food and Drug Administration. And Finkel says that should be enough.

“Government mandates a label to convey important information about health, safety and nutrition to consumers. Any other mandatory label would just be confusing and misleading."
~Louis Finkel, Grocery Manufacturers Association


The legislation Finkel supports would effectively wipe out any labeling requirements imposed by states. But Finkel says it’s not an effort to undercut state policies.

“We shouldn’t be making food safety and labeling decisions through political campaigns on a state by state basis. All Americans deserve to have a uniform system that they can rely on that’s based on sound science and based on our preeminent food safety authority which is FDA.”
~Louis Finkel, Grocery Manufacturers Association


It isn’t just the grocery association that doesn’t like the state-by-state approach. People who are concerned about GMOs also want a national solution. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer says part of the reason the food industry is increasing its lobbying in Washington is that this food fight has gotten expensive.

“They spent millions and millions and the consumers couldn’t keep up with it. So I think what they’re finding is it’s very expensive for them and eventually they’re going to lose.”
~Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)


Boxer is sponsoring a bill that would require labeling, but large food manufacturers claim that would lead to higher prices. Boxer denies that. She says her bill is merely an effort to increase transparency. Boxer says the problem with the food industry proposal is it represents no change.

“What they want to do is codify what’s now the truth that anyone can voluntarily label. So I don’t see how it changes the status quo," says Boxer.

The grocery association notes organic companies stand to reap huge profits if GMO labeling becomes mandatory. For all the money being spent on both sides of the GMO labeling issue lawmakers, like Richvale Republican Doug LaMalfa, are happy to leave labeling requirements up to the states.

“I’m in general would rather support things happening at the state level any way. Different states are going to have different crops that may or may not be subject to it. So I think I would lean towards letting the states decide it individually.”
~Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale)


Seventy to 80 percent of all the food consumed in the U.S. contains GMOs. LaMalfa says organic and natural food companies are already labeling for consumers under the current system.

“If it’s something you’re proud of, you market that, you know,” LaMalfa says.

Granite Bay Republican Tom McClintock says mandatory labeling causes another problem: mathematics. He says some ingredients in every day products may be genetically modified while the bulk of the product may be GMO-free.

“Because of the fact that so many different products will go into a single finished product trying to label for that becomes a litigation nightmare."
~Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay)


In spite of the opposition, Boxer says attitudes are changing on Capitol Hill.

“When I started this a million years ago, and believe me I did a long time ago I had not one co-sponsor," she says. "It was my only effort that had zero co-sponsors.”

Boxer’s bill now has fifteen Senate co-sponsors while its House companion has fifty. She says it’s a generational issue.

“As the older people die off and the younger people come up -- younger people are much more interested in the content of the food they eat.
~Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)


GMO labeling isn't high on the agenda of many federal lawmakers. And with states like California taking the lead on labeling, the nation may soon have a patchwork of different state requirements. That prospect doesn’t please either side in this contentious issue.

This piece first appeared on Capital Public Radio