By Carey Gillam and Lisa Baertlein
(Reuters) - The failure on Tuesday of a California ballot initiative that would have mandated labeling of genetically modified foods is not a death knell for those seeking nationwide labeling, U.S. labeling proponents said.
President Barack Obama's re-election could be a boost, as he is seen, in general terms, as being supportive of labeling. Still, efforts to force change at a federal level could face an uphill climb.
"The federal effort is a monumental task without a state victory somewhere," said Michele Simon, a public health attorney from California.
New state labeling initiatives are planned for Washington state and Oregon. Beyond that, the action now shifts to Washington, D.C. and efforts to force change at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has primary regulatory oversight for food and food additives.
A citizen's petition is pending with the agency demanding a re-examination of its policy against labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. More than one million people signed on, the most ever for a petition to the FDA, and backers say the effort has been aided by the publicity surrounding the California initiative.
"When we first filed our petition with the FDA over a year ago ... it was only a handful of Washington insiders who fully understood what we were talking about," said Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm organic yogurt company, and chairman of the "Just Label It" campaign. "Now average folks are well educated on this issue."
Supporters of the federal labeling action include organic and natural food companies, environmental and consumer groups.
The petition, filed in October 2011, is the first step in a strategy that could lead to a federal lawsuit against the FDA, said Andrew Kimbrell, the lead attorney with the Center for Food Safety, who wrote the legal petition.
Kimbrell said passage of the California measure would have provided leverage for the federal effort. Its 53 percent to 47 percent defeat in progressive California was a setback, but the legal strategy with the FDA does not depend on state passage.
Rather, CFS hopes to prove that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, dating back to 1938, is being too narrowly interpreted by FDA and treats modern-day GMO technology in a way that does not comply with the intent of the law to protect consumers.
Genetically modified crops, which have had their DNA spliced with genetic material from other species, have been around for 16 years. Popular biotech crops can survive treatments of weedkiller and are toxic to insects that feed on the crops. And most processed foods sold in the United States contain some GMO corn, soybeans or other crops.
The CFS petition calls on the FDA to declare that molecular or genetic alterations are "material" changes relevant to consumers. The FDA's current policy, set in 1992, holds that foods derived from genetically modified plants were substantially equivalent to those produced through conventional means.
"The combination of FDA's failure to mandate pre-market safety testing and its permissive labeling policy has meant that silent changes to our food supply are tested on the public without their knowledge," the petition alleges.
FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky said the agency was evaluating the petition and will respond, but declined to comment further.
The California labeling measure failed in part after an onslaught of opposition led by Monsanto Co, the world's largest seed company and the developer of much of the world's genetically modified seed technology.
Campaign finance reports show Monsanto and almost 80 food companies and biotechnology advocates, including PepsiCo and DuPont, spent roughly $46 million to turn back the California effort. They argued that GMO food products are proven safe, and labeling would add unnecessary costs and regulation.
They make a similar argument against any federal labeling mandate, saying the FDA's view that no labeling is needed is proper.
"New biotech foods are appropriately tested for safety," said Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents the interests of the biotech seed industry. "No crops are commercialized without USDA and FDA review."
That position frustrates many in the scientific community, who say the industry and regulators are disregarding numerous studies showing harmful impacts from GMO crops.
In a letter published in October in the Independent Science News, more than 70 scientists, academic researchers and professors said that "corporate influence" was stifling research that finds negative implications connected with GMOs.
"We are going to have to come to grips with this. Every major trading partner we deal with has labeling," said Hirshberg. "Labeling of GE (genetically engineered) foods is not a question of whether, but when."
(Reporting By Carey Gillam in Chicago and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Ros Krasny and Tim Dobbyn)