Like a persistent mosquito that keeps coming back no matter how many times you bat it away, the controversial issue of mandated labeling for genetically engineered foods in the United States just won’t go away.
The latest example of that persistence is legislation proposed in Washington state that would require genetically engineered foods, or food items that contain genetically engineered foods, to be labeled so consumers can make an informed choice about what they buy.
If approved, for the most part, the labeling requirement as proposed by legislation in Washington state would kick in on July 1, 2014. Fines for not labeling such foods are included in the legislation.
Simply put, genetic engineering is the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material. Genetically modified organisms, often referred to as GMOs, are those whose genetic material (DNA or RNA) have been altered in ways that would not occur naturally through mating or cell division.
Examples of genetically modified crops are corn, potatoes and cotton that have had the microbe bT (Bacillus thuringiensis), a naturally occurring pesticide, inserted into their genes so they can resist pests, such as, in the case of corn, the European corn borer, that harm or destroy the crops.
The genetic engineering of plants is generally geared to boost production, improve their ability to survive in specific environments, give them better resistance to pests and diseases, improve their nutritional qualities, and to create immunity to certain herbicides.
Labeling supporters, including Nature’s Path Organic, say that GMO ingredients are found in 80 percent of packaged foods in the United States.
Labeling supporters also say that the bottom line in all of this is that people have no idea if the foods they’re eating are genetically engineered or contain ingredients from genetically engineered foods because there’s no labeling to tell them that.
Their common mantra comes down to this: “We have the right to know what we’re eating and feeding to our families.”
For many people, genetic engineering is seen, or portrayed, as a “food safety” issue. For example, in Washington state, House Bill 2637, one of the bills calling for GMO labeling, starts right off by saying that “the genetic engineering of plants and animals often causes unintended consequences.”
Also, according to the proposed legislation: “Manipulating genes and inserting them into organisms is an imprecise process. The results are not always predictable or controllable, and can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences.”
Looking to the future, the legislation says one benefit of mandatory labeling of engineered foods could be to provide a critical method for tracking the “potential health effects” of consuming genetically engineered foods.
The legislation points to “warnings from government scientists” that the artificial insertion of genetic material into plants could cause significant problems “such as an increase in the levels of known toxicants in food, the introduction of new toxicants or new allergies, and the reduction of the nutritional value of food.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a policy in 1992 declaring that there is no substantial or material difference between genetically engineered foods and foods that haven’t been genetically engineered.
While genetically modified foods may be relatively safe by science-based approaches to risk assessment, the issue of labeling GMO foods is about public confidence. As Marion Nestle observes in her book, “Safe Food”: “Until people actually have some choice about whether to consume transgenic foods, there is little reason to accept them.”
A Lawmaker’s Quest
Rep. Cary Condotta, a Republican from rural Eastern Washington and sponsor of HB 2637, told Food Safety News he became involved in this issue after more than 1,000 wheat growers came to the Legislature with a petition calling for the labeling of genetically engineered foods. He said that for the wheat farmers, it was about their livelihoods. Most of the wheat grown in Washington state is exported, and many countries don’t want even a trace of GMOs in the wheat they buy.
“The wheat farmers in my district don’t want it anywhere near their fields,” Condotta said, referring to genetically modified wheat. But after attending some seminars on genetically engineered foods, Condotta said he became aware of what he thinks are food safety issues.
“People should be concerned,” he said. “There aren’t enough studies done on the potential long-term effects of this on human health. It can be scary. There are times we shouldn’t be messing with Mother Nature.”
He refers to the labeling bills in his state as “non-partisan.”
“This is an issue definitely is not going to go away,” he added but, as far as he’s concerned, even if the bill doesn’t see the light of day, it will have raised people’s awareness.
“I think we’ll see traction on this,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t pass, it will bring more attention to this issue, and people can start researching it on their own.”
State Sen. Maralyn Chase, a Democrat from suburban Western Washington and one of six sponsors of a similar bill, SB 6298, told Food Safety News that “people should be able to know what they are eating, that they are not allergic to it, and that it does not violate their medical, religious or environmental concerns.”
“The bottom line is that people need to be able to trust the American food production system to be honest about their food — in every aspect,” she said.
She is confident about the bill’s success. “It is going to pass — in spite of corporate agriculture’s efforts,” she said.
Both bills were to be the subject of public hearings this week.
Condotta said that the Washington state labeling bills are patterned after The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.
If the language in that measure is approved by California’s Attorney General’s office, the initiative will appear on the California ballot in November 2012 — as long as there are enough signatures (500,000) to qualify it for the ballot. If approved by the voters, it would require food sold in retail outlets in California to be labeled so consumers can know if the food is genetically engineered or if it contains genetically engineered ingredients.
Previous bills submitted to California legislators to require labeling failed to make it out of committee.
Last year, 14 states, among them Oregon, New York, Maryland and Vermont, considered bills labeling or banning genetically engineered foods. And in 2005, Alaska passed a law that requires all fish and mollusks raised in the state to be labeled as to whether they are genetically engineered. Legislators are currently considering measures to expand that to all fish sold in the state.
Labeling supporters say the states are increasingly becoming frustrated by Congress’s unwillingness to come to grips with this i
ssue. And they often point to polls to make their point.
One of those polls was an informal survey conducted last February by msnbc.com. When asked “Do you believe genetically modified foods should be labeled,” 96.1 percent, representing 43,725 respondents, agreed with: “Yes. It’s an ethical issue — consumers should be informed so they can make a choice. Another 3.1 percent agreed with: “No. The U.S. government says they are safe and that’s good enough for me.” Less than one-half of one percent agreed with: “Not sure. It all tastes the same to me.”
Out in the marketplace, leading opponents of labeling in the United States warn that labeling foods as genetically engineered would needlessly alarm consumers, leading to dwindling sales for those products.
But labeling supporters point out that the United States is out of step with the European Union and many other countries in this. According to the bills introduced in Washington state, 50 countries, including the European Union member states, Japan and other key United States trading partners, have laws mandating disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients on food labels.
The legislation also points out that no international agreements prohibit the mandatory labeling of such foods.
Taking a different tack, a petition submitted to the FDA by the Center for Food Safety starts right off by saying that genetic engineering leads to changes to foods at the molecular level that have never occurred in traditional varieties and that the absence of mandatory labeling disclosures for genetically engineered foods is therefore misleading to consumers.
It blasts FDA’s failure to require labeling for genetically foods as an abdication of its statutory mandate to require labeling for foods that are “misbranded,” because they are misleading.
The petition has more than 20 other petitioners, among them Consumer Reports, The National Family Farm Coalition, Northeast Dairy Producers and Stonyfield Farm.
The petition also faults FDA for being behind the times with “an outdated regulatory regime for food labeling that is woefully inadequate”.
“FDA is still using 19th century ideas to regulate 21st century foods, focusing only on traits that consumers can detect with their senses,” says the petition. “But modern public preferences and purchasing decisions are based not only on sensory perceptions, but also on concerns related to latent or unknown health risks, animal welfare, faith, political concerns, social justice and environmental impacts.”
According to the petition’s conclusion, “Genetic engineering makes silent but fundamental changes to our food at the molecular and cellular level, the full human health and environmental consequences of which are still being discovered.” The Center is asking that the FDA provide an answer to this petition “within a reasonable time.”
Adding fuel to the fire, the “Just Label It!” campaign is urging people to add their names to the Center’s petition. The goal is to have 1 million signatures by spring. This week, there were already 540,000 signatures, all of which will be added to the docket that the FDA has set up for the Center’s petition.
Adam Eidinger, coordinator of last fall’s “Right2Know March, said that the hope is that the petition will spur the FDA to come up with rule-making about labeling.
In all of this, there are heated claims that industry giant Monsanto and industrial ag in general are in bed with the FDA, the USDA, and the EPA, the three agencies that have oversight on genetically engineered crops and foods. Even so, the wheat growers in Washington state, for example, are not in that camp. For them, genetically engineered wheat would spell their doom as farmers.
In the Center for Food Safety’s petition to the FDA, the group says that because there has been no government-mandated, independent, peer-reviewed scientific testing of genetically engineered foods, the public has been serving as an unwitting laboratory for “this experimental food technology.”
But Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said the organization would argue with assertions that genetically engineered foods aren’t safe to eat.
“There has never been a credible reportable food-safety concern,” she told Food Safety News. She also said that respected scientific authorities such as the Research Council of the National Academies of Science, the American Dietetic Association, the American Medical Association, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, have concluded that genetically engineered foods and those made with ingredients from those foods pose no more risk to people than other foods.
According to the organization’s information sheet on this, “Food Safety: An Important Issue for You and Your Family”, biotech crops have been cultivated for more than 15 years, and foods derived from agricultural biotechnology have been eaten by billions of people without a single documented health problem.
“The debate over this ebbs and flows,” Batra said. “We went through this 10 years ago. But when the industry came forward and provided consumers with education about this, and once they understood that there’s nothing fabricated or inserted into the food, their apprehension subsided.”
David Tribe, author of the blog “GMO Pundit” who teaches food science at the University of Melbourne, Australia, also rails at claims that not enough studies have been done on genetically engineered food.
On one of his blog entries, he points readers to more than 420 published safety assessments on this topic.
He takes issue with claims that genetically modified foods are not properly tested or that few independent studies have been published to establish their safety or that the food regulatory agencies rely exclusively on corporate information to decide whether genetically modified food and feed is safe. He blasts those claims as “wrong — merely myths.”
The Future of Labeling
For some, it doesn’t matter whether or not there have been studies and testing on genetically engineered foods. The issue is that genetically modified foods should be labeled so they can know what they’re buying.
JayDee Hansen, senior policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, told Food Safety News that with different states weighing in on this issue, there eventually could be different labeling requirements in different states.
At that point, he said, the industry will likely consider coming up with standards that make sense.
He also said that some large companies have weighed in with the Center on this issue, saying that labeling doesn’t cost that much and that companies change their labels all of the time. “It would benefit the industry and the consumers to have a consistent label instead of a hodge podge of labels,” he said.
How Many Acres?
In the past 15 years more than a billion hectares (2.47 billion acres) — an area greater than the land masses of China or the United States — have
been planted with genetically engineered crops, according to a press release from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
By anyone’s reckoning, it’s a fast-moving train: biotech crop cultivation jumped 87-fold between 1996 and 2010, making genetically engineered crops the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.
Biotech advocates point to these numbers, saying that there’s no doubt that genetically modified agriculture is here to stay.