Friday, May 20, 2011

States lead labeling debate

States lead debate over modified food labeling
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post
May 20, 2011

In the absence of a federal law requiring labels for genetically modified food, 14 states are debating whether to mandate labeling for modified foods sold within their borders.

The discussions, taking place from Albany, N.Y., to Sacramento, come as federal regulators weigh approval of the first genetically modified animal, a salmon, for human consumption.

In four states — California, Oregon, Vermont and Alaska — lawmakers are considering legislation that would pertain only to fish. The other states, including New York, are grappling with measures that would require all foods made from genetically modified ingredients to disclose that information on the label.

“The fact that you see these measures popping up is kind of a response to the vacuum in Washington,” said Jared Huffman, a Democratic member of the California State Assembly and sponsor of a bill to require labeling for genetically modified salmon. His measure was debated Wednesday by a key appropriations committee but fell three votes short of the number needed for passage. The committee chairman, who supports the bill, called for a second vote to be held May 25. If approved, it will head to the full assembly.

Genetically modified food is created when a plant or organism receives genetic material from a different source — sometimes a different species — to produce a desired trait. Creators of the genetically altered salmon took an Atlantic salmon and inserted a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from an ocean pout. The result is a salmon that grows twice the normal rate. Critics have dismissed it as “Frank­enfish.”

The Food and Drug Administration says it cannot require a label once it determines the altered food is not “materially” different from its conventional counterpart, which it has done in the case of the salmon.

But Huffman said that the genetically modified salmon, which has not yet received FDA approval, is not the same as a wild salmon, and that consumers deserve to know the difference.

“If you’ve got a product on the shelf next to wild salmon and it’s genetically engineered, raised in pens in a factory facility — probably priced a lot less — and you don’t even label it, the consumer will think it’s salmon,” Huffman said, adding that the cheaper competitor would threaten California’s struggling wild salmon industry.

The controversy comes as Americans show increased interest in their food — where it is grown, how it is produced and what it contains.

“There’s been tremendous, overwhelming support from constituents on this,” Huffman said.

Since the FDA approved the first genetically altered material for use in food in 1992, the use of genetically engineered crops has skyrocketed; 93 percent of last year’s soybean crop was genetically engineered, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

By-products of those crops — soy lecithin, for example — are found in thousands of processed foods from chocolate bars to breakfast cereal. Genetically modified ingredients are present in about 80 percent of conventional processed food in the United States, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade organization opposed to labeling measures.

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