On April 9, 2014, Republican Mike Pompeo of Kansas and Democrat G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014.” The new bill, H.R. 4432, seeks to regulate the labeling of bioengineered food under the direction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). H.R. 4432 also directs the FDA to oversee use of the word “natural” on food labels.

Despite its bipartisan sponsors, H.R. 4432 is already embroiled in controversy. The bill expressly prohibits state laws requiring manufacturers to label bioengineered foods. Many states already have or are contemplating mandatory labeling laws, and Congress’s dramatic entrance into the debate has angered some and delighted others.

In accordance with its expressed goal of preemption, H.R. 4432 identifies the circumstances when labeling a food as either bioengineered or not bioengineered is appropriate. If a bioengineered food differs materially from its original nature, then the food’s label must disclose its association with bioengineering processes. Conversely, if a food meets certain criteria, it may be labeled as not bioengineered. This label cannot, however, suggest that bioengineered food is less than safe.

Additionally, H.R. 4432 also creates a “Premarket Biotechnology Notification” program. Under this program, the FDA must approve bioengineered foods prior to their initial market introduction. H.R. 4432 provides the framework governing submission, consultation, response, labeling, and disclosure, but instructs the FDA to fill in the gaps.

Lastly, H.R. 4432 attempts to standardize use of the word “natural” on food labels. H.R. 4432 outlaws labels incorrectly claiming that food is natural. Unfortunately, H.R. 4432 does not identify the parameters for use of the word “natural” in food labeling. The bill instead instructs the FDA to promulgate the final regulations necessary to execute this ambiguous task and gives the agency 24 months from enactment to do so.

After its introduction, H.R. 4432 was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Its fate, and therefore the fate of several state laws, has yet to be decided.

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