By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - Four U.S. lawmakers joined with more than 200 food companies, organic farming groups, health and environment organizations and other groups on Thursday to urge President Barack Obama to require manufacturers to label food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.
The groups delivered a letter to the president dated January 16 reminding Obama of a campaign pledge the groups said he made in 2007 as he campaigned in Iowa to work to label so-called GMO foods.
The issue is hotly contested, with more than 20 states considering laws to mandate labeling of foods made with gene-altered corn, soybeans, sugar beets and other biotech crops. Currently, labeling of such foods is voluntary.
Advocates of labeling say consumers deserve to know if the food they eat contains GMOs. But the makers of biotech crops, and many large food manufacturers have fought against mandatory labeling, arguing that genetically modified crops are not materially different and pose no safety risk, and labeling would mislead consumers.
Among the signatories on Thursday's letter to President Obama are the ice cream company Ben & Jerry's, cereal maker Nature's Path, organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farms, the Consumer Federation of America and several environmental and health groups.
"We believe there should be a mandatory national labeling system. FDA has a duty to act when the absence of labeling would leave consumers confused about the foods they buy," the groups said in their letter.
Four Democratic members of Congress held a press conference on Thursday to support the call on Obama for mandatory labeling - U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio from Oregon; U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut; U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster from New Hampshire; and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree from Maine.
The move comes as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food companies, is pushing Congress and the Food and Drug Administration to pre-empt any state labeling mandates in favor of a federal standard for voluntary labeling, and to allow some GMO foods to be labeled "natural."
Most of the biotech crops on the market have been genetically altered to repel pests or tolerate direct spraying of herbicides. Those crops are used in a vast array of food products.
The companies that develop them say the crops are safe, and are backed by many scientific studies. But U.S. government regulators do not independently test GMO crops before approving them for commercialization. And there are also many studies showing links to human and animal health problems, and environmental damage.
Last October, an international coalition of scientists declared there still was no consensus in the global scientific community about the safety of genetically modified crops, which were first commercialized in 1996.
(Editing by Ed Davies)