On Monday, 45 U.S. representatives and 10 U.S. senators signed a letter to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in support of a legal petition that asks the FDA to require labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.
The petition, filed by nonprofit Center for Food Safety and supported by more than 400 health and consumer organizations and businesses, argues that consumers require more complete labeling in order to make informed decisions. Since October 2011, members of the public have submitted more than 850,000 comments in support of the petition.
Genetically engineered foods are foods made from organisms — mainly plants — that have had their genes modified to exhibit specific desired traits, such as tomatoes modified to delay ripening or corn with built-in resistances to herbicides and insects. Such foods have been sold on the market since 1996.
Drafting of the bicameral congressional letter was led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (CA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR). It was signed by several members of congress recently tied to food safety issues, including Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY), Sen. Jon Tester (MT) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH).
The letter called the FDA’s current policy on labeling inadequate because it only covers foods changed “materially” by taste, smell or other senses.
“The use of novel food technologies like genetic engineering on a commercial scale has so far slipped underneath FDA’s limited threshold for ‘materiality’ because such technologies make silent, genetic, and molecular changes to food that are not capable of being detected by human senses,” the letter read.
The 55 congress members argued that the basic issue under debate was the fundamental right of consumers to make informed decision about what they eat. Labeling foods does not imply that they are unsafe, but it does allow consumers to choose whether or not they want to purchase them, they said.
The FDA currently requires labeling for more than 3,000 ingredients, additives and processes, including other processes that similarly do not alter the food materially. The congress members cited the FDA’s rule requiring labeling of irradiated foods as an example of the FDA’s “reasonable” decision to look beyond sensory changes and label foods based on information consumers find important.
“We urge you to fully review the facts, law, and science, and side with the American public by requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods as is done in nearly 50 countries around the world,” the letter read.
Japan, Australia, China, Russia, Brazil and 15 European countries are among those requiring labeling for GE foods.
Today, the majority of soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets and papayas grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Along with being modified for resistances to herbicides and insect pests, corn, the most thoroughly engineered crop, has seen some GE varieties become vitamin-fortified with beta carotene and vitamin C.
The FDA and many scientists have declared GE foods to be as safe as their unmodified counterparts. Critics, including other scientists, say that there has not been enough testing or tracking to verify whether or not GE foods present a safe alternative.
The complete list of congress members who signed the letter, provided by the Center for Food Safety’s True Food Network, follows below:
House Members: Peter DeFazio (OR-4), Richard Hanna (NY-24), Dennis Kucinich (OH-10), George Miller (CA-7), Louise Slaughter (NY-28), Keith Ellison (MN-5), Raul Grijalva (AZ-7), Peter Welch (VT-At Large), Hansen Clarke (MI-13), Earl Blumenauer (OR-3), Lloyd Doggett (TX-25), Anna Eshoo (CA-14), Sam Farr (CA-17), Maurice Hinchey (NY-22), Rush Holt (NJ-12), Chellie Pingree (ME-1), Jim McDermott (WA-7), Madeleine Bordallo (GU-At Large), James Moran (VA-8), John Olver (MA-1), Jared Polis (CO-2), Charles Rangel (NY-15), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1), Pete Stark (CA-13), Howard L. Berman (CA-28), Robert Brady (PA-1), David Cicilline (RI-1), Yvette D. Clarke (NY-11), Steve Cohen (TN-9), Dianne DeGette (CO-1), Bob Filner (CA-5), Barney Frank (MA-4), Luis Gutierrez (IL-4), Janice Hahn (CA-36), Michael Honda (CA-15), Barbara Lee (CA-9), Zoe Lofgren (CA-16), James McGovern (MA-3), Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), Jackie Speier (CA-12), John Tierney (MA-6), Melvin L. Watt (NC-12), Lynn Woolsey (CA-6), Maxine Waters (CA-35), and Grace Napolitano (CA-38).
Senators: Barbara Boxer (CA), Patrick Leahy (VT), Bernie Sanders (VT), Daniel Akaka (HI), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Ron Wyden (OR), Mark Begich (AK), Jon Tester (MT), Richard Blumenthal (CT), and Jeff Merkley (OR).