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Cutting Through the Frankenfood Debate: Are Products with Genetically Modified Organisms Safe? And Should They Be Labeled? - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Health
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 06 December 2012 05:01

Government Labeling, and Objections to It

So lacking thorough government-mandated long-term testing, many people are calling for label requirements for food with GMOs. “If the government won’t do the studies and assure these foods are safe, should not every American have the right to decide for themselves?” Bancroft asked.

“Ninety-one percent of the American population says that they want labeling,” he added. “We already have labeling for orange juice from concentrate. We have labeling on irradiated foods. And those have come about primarily because that’s what the public wants.”

And beyond food safety, he said, people want to know about GMOs in their food for environmental and religious reasons: “There’s a stronger need for a governmental role here to have labeling across the board.”

But consumer preference isn’t enough for FDA action, American Soybean Association attorney Redick said, and neither is a consumer perception that food without GMO ingredients is safer. The agency’s primary charge is to protect health, and to invoke the authority to label GMO ingredients (without congressional action), the FDA would need to establish risks to human health, he said: “If they tried to write something that didn’t have any safety basis ... the question really is whether there’s a material difference that is scientifically posing a health-and-safety type of risk.”

If there were a documented risk to human health presented by a GMO ingredient, he added, the FDA would have the authority to further regulate that ingredient – including adding a warning specific to that ingredient on food labels.

But to require a general label for all products containing GMOs would be meaningless, Redick said, akin to having an allergen warning that doesn’t specify which allergens are or might be present. “A generic ‘Hey, GMO might be here’ doesn’t tell the consumer anything at all that helps improve their ability to manage their own health risks,” he said.

Here it’s worth noting that a GMO label could take any of several forms – and not just the blanket one Redick attacked. Bancroft said his organization doesn’t have a position on the prominence or wording of labels, but they might be as subtle as noting, for instance, the specific type of GE corn instead of just “corn” on the ingredient list. “I don’t think it needs to be stamped in bold letters on the front of the package,” he said. “It just needs to be there so consumers can find it and be aware of it. ... It would definitely be a step forward. We have gotten resistance to just the entire idea of labeling.”

Indeed, Redick and other food-industry groups have tossed out a lot of arguments against labeling, from the cost to the government bureaucracy to the percentage of GMO ingredients that would be allowed for something to still qualify as a non-GMO food. (Some countries allow for as much as 5 percent GMO ingredients in food classified as “Non-GMO.” An emerging standard for GMO ingredients in non-GMO food is 0.9 percent.)

But many of these – aside from the core claim of the safety of GMO food ingredients – result from the logistics and details of implementation, rather than the concept of labeling itself.

And some are pretty dubious beyond that. In many cases, labeling opponents say, food manufacturers would choose more-expensive non-GMO inputs rather than get slapped with a label they find stigmatizing. As a result, Prop 37 opponents claimed grocery bills would jump hundreds of dollars a year for families. (This point is a double-edged sword, as they’re essentially conceding that consumers would avoid GMO products if they could.)

Yet despite the labeling experience of dozens of countries, Redick refused to say whether labeling actually increases prices at the consumer level: “The studies show that there are huge impacts, but mainly on growers. Whether the food companies then added price to their products or just absorbed the cost is an open question. That’s a hard study to do.”

Many of Redick’s arguments dealt with California’s Prop 37, and the specifics of the ballot measure served to muddy the waters of the basic question about the wisdom of government-mandated labeling. So, too, will Food & Water Watch’s “Let Me Decide” efforts in Illinois, Iowa, and Florida – which raise the legal question of federal versus state authority and, if successful, could result in litigation by both the FDA and the food industry.

Felder said her organization is working with state Senator Joe Bolkcom to introduce labeling legislation in Iowa next year. Food & Water Watch is also conducting a postcard campaign to Senator Joe Seng of Davenport, who chairs his chamber’s agriculture committee. She said she doesn’t have a time frame for passage, but “it could take multiple years, and that’s why we are trying to lay the groundwork here to get the word out and to get some legislators on board.”

Asked why the group is working with state legislators rather than focusing on the federal government, Felder said: “To create a powerful movement, to really get the word out about this issue, we need to be working at both levels.”

Just Label It’s Bancroft admitted that state efforts aren’t, practically speaking, an ideal vehicle, but they’re useful for raising public awareness: “Bottom line: Labeling is a national issue that needs a national solution. But we’re not quite there yet, and anything and everything that calls attention to this issue and educates the public is good.”

Still, the campaigns to implement labeling at the state or federal level miss one important fact: We already have vehicles for labeling food without GMO ingredients.

Another Way

Redick compared the labeling of GMO food to a government requirement to label non-halal meat or non-kosher products. In all three cases, voluntary, certified labels already exist for people who want to find something – halal, kosher, or non-GMO – and it’s not necessary for the government to force the labeling of things that don’t meet those criteria.

People who want to avoid food with GMOs have two existing label options: certified organic and non-GMO. The first in this country is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, and depending on the source you consult, it might or might not be foolproof in terms of avoiding GMOs entirely. (Some products labeled as organic could contain up to 5 percent GMOs.)

More reliable are foods with the Non-GMO Project label (, which has been endorsed by the grocery chain Whole Foods. The project has a 0.9-percent GMO tolerance, and products are verified; “ongoing testing is required for all GMO risk ingredients,” its Web site states.

But Davenport’s Greatest Grains is the only participating Quad Cities-area Non-GMO Project retailer, meaning that local consumers don’t have many options. The level of grocer participation seems at odds with the oft-cited levels of public demand for GMO labeling, and until voluntary efforts such as the Non-GMO Project take off with both retailers and consumers, the government-labeling approach will appeal to many.

Furthermore, Non-GMO Project-labeled products, like certified organic foods, will likely be more expensive, Felder said. “We see it as a social-justice issue,” she said. “You shouldn’t need to spend more money to know for sure if you’re consuming genetically engineered foods. All foods should be labeled.”

Ultimately, the labeling question is or should be secondary to the safety question. Bancroft admitted that the labeling movement is a response to what he sees as an inadequate regulatory system: “We need to have a 21st Century review of the science of GE foods that cuts across all agencies – the patent office, EPA, USDA, FDA. We need a top-to-bottom review of how government regulates these foods.”

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