A complicated regulatory landscape for genetically modified foods would shift power to large food producers at the expense of small companies and innovative startups.
Have you ever seen a product that displayed a label that states: “This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” And notifying you that you should wash your hands after handling it?
In my case, it was a cable attached to a computer peripheral.
How is that that the State of California “knows” this product is harmful, but none of the other states or the federal government have such knowledge? And why should I — here in Kansas — be discouraged by buying a product and then be scared to use it, just because California believes it is harmful?
The answer is that California has a list of about 900 chemicals that it believes are harmful. If you want to sell a product in California, and if your product contains one of these, you must provide a warning label on your product.
Now, can you imagine the confusion that would result if other states had their own list of chemicals that they believe are harmful. It’s quite likely that each state would have a different list. Complying with the multitude of different harmful lists and labeling requirements would be a burden. It might be impossible — or very costly — to comply.
Today, we have similar potential for regulatory complexity cropping up in the form of state-based label requirements for foods that contain GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). Dozens of states are considering their own labeling requirements for food sold within their borders. It’s quite likely that each state would have a different set of labeling requirements. The complexity of complying with such disjointed regulations is costly and forbidding.
To help in this situation, United States Representative Mike Pompeo has introduced legislation that would eliminate the ability of states to require labeling. The bill is H.R. 4432: Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014.
The proposed law does not prohibit voluntarily labeling.
What’s interesting is that opponents say this bill will create a new federal bureaucracy to enforce GMO regulations. I suppose that’s true. But it’s either that, or 50 states with 50 sets of regulations, all different. Cities could add regulations, too, further complicating the regulatory landscape.
Another observation: Critics of this bill say its supporters have “sold out” to the large food producer companies, Monsanto being mentioned most prominently. But it is large companies like Monsanto that are best able to cope with complicated regulations. Large companies have fleets of lawyers and compliance officers that can deal with burdensome regulation. And being large, these companies can spread the cost of regulation over a large sales volume.
But small companies, start up companies, and innovators don’t have lots of lawyers and compliance officers. Being small, they can’t spread the cost of regulation over a large sales volume. These are the companies that are most harmed by regulations like those that H.R. 4432 is designed to squelch.
It’s in the interest of large companies to have regulations that create barriers to entry to markets by new competitors. We often see companies lobbying to create such regulations. But H.R. 4432 will create a uniform playing field that is easier and simpler to navigate and obey.
Finally, markets have a remarkable ability to provide the products and information that consumers want. If a food producer senses that consumers want information about the ingredients in a product, they’ll provide it. Their competitors — if they see themselves disadvantaged — will also provide the information that consumers demand. The alternative is relying on 50 sets of government bureaucrats operating in 50 state capitals, plus ambitious city bureaucrats.