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Food industry seeks voluntary GMO labeling

General Mills will no longer use genetically modified ingredients in its original Cheerios.

David Duprey/Associated Press/File 2011

General Mills will no longer use genetically modified ingredients in its original Cheerios.

WASHINGTON — People who want to know more about genetically modified ingredients in their food would be able to get it on some packages, but not others, under a plan the industry is pushing.

Large food companies that are worried they might be forced to add ‘‘genetically modified’’ to packaging are proposing voluntary labeling of those engineered foods, so the companies could decide whether to use them.

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The effort is an attempt to head off state-by-state efforts 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 is in their food. There is very little science that says genetically engineered foods are unsafe. But opponents say there is 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.

Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the food industry’s main trade group, said the decision on labels should rest with the Food and Drug Administration, which assesses food safety.

‘‘It does not serve national food safety policy to leave these issues to political campaigns.’’

The grocery manufacturers announced a partnership with 28 farm and food industry groups Thursday to push for the legislation. The groups include the National Corn Growers Association, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Beverage Association, 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 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, the FDA has not found safety issues with modified ingredients.

The companies are facing pressure from retailers as the conversation about modified ingredients grows louder. Whole Foods announced last year it plans to label genetically modified products in all its US and Canadian stores within five years.

And some companies have decided to just remove the ingredients, so no labels will be necessary. General Mills recently announced it will no longer use genetically modified ingredients in its original Cheerios.

It is unclear whether there is support for voluntary labels in Congress. Many lawmakers from farm states have defended the technology. In May, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment by Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, that would have allowed states to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

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