Thursday, October 6, 2011

Just label it

Just label it
By Doug Gurian-Sherman
Union of Concerned Scientists
October 6, 2011

Genetically engineered (GE) foods have been in our groceries for years, and are found in most processed foods in the U.S. But there is nothing on a box of corn flakes that tells you whether there are GE ingredients in that food—and the GE industry wants it to stay that way.

This is contrary to what the large majority of consumers want. Consumer surveys show that overwhelming majorities (over 90 percent) consistently say that GE content should be disclosed—as documented by a new campaign to require the labeling of GE foods, called “Just Label It!”

The campaign wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reverse its misguided policy that says food companies cannot be required to disclose the GE content in our foods.

When material is not material

Food law says that an ingredient must make a material difference before labeling can be required. In 1992 FDA decided that engineered foods, say corn kernels, were not materially different than non-engineered corn. FDA defined “material” as meaning that a consumer could not tell the difference between the GE and non-GE version, that it was essentially the same (substantially equivalent in FDA’s parlance) and safe.

It is clear to me that adding an insect toxin gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) makes a real difference to corn kernels—one capable of killing insects that could not have been killed before. FDA’s criterion that engineering must be detectable by consumers is largely arbitrary—foods can differ in a variety of ways, including safety, that are invisible to consumers.

In its petition requesting FDA to reverse its stance and require labeling of GE foods, the Center for Food Safety noted that most of the genes in GE crops are patented–which generally requires that genes and crops be materially different than before.

Right to know

One of the important legal arguments made by the petition is that FDA arbitrarily and capriciously narrowed the statutory definition of “material” to exclude other important considerations about what makes foods different. For example, the petition traces the historical legislative definition of material as something to which a “…reasonable man would attach importance in determining his choice of action in a transaction in question.”

Legalities aside, in a healthy democracy, people should have access to information they believe important, especially for something as fundamental as the food we eat. The consistent and overwhelming support for labeling of GE foods, seen in survey after survey for many years, is a strong argument that it is important for people to know whether their food contains GE material.

But is it safe?

Many GE crops may be safe. But it is also clear that GE can introduce harmful genes into foods. In 1996, a research paper revealed that the gene for a major allergen from Brazil nut was unwittingly added to soybeans in an attempt to improve the quality of soy protein (it was not commercialized). Several reports from the National Academy of Sciences have acknowledged that GE could, in some cases, add substances to crops that are harmful to human health or the environment.

The question is then–is the regulation of GE foods adequate? Will it detect GE foods that may be harmful? Unfortunately, the FDA does not approve the safety of GE foods, leaving it instead to the GE companies to determine how to test for safety, perform the tests, and analyze the data. After its short review of the summarized safety data, the FDA sends a letter to the company acknowledging that the company has concluded that the food is safe.

In the only external assessment of GE food safety data submitted to the FDA, I reviewed the FDA process and the data it received for 14 GE foods. There were numerous problems in the quality of data (e.g., lack of appropriate statistical analyses), lack of needed tests, and errors of analysis. And in half of the cases where FDA asked for additional data, the companies simply refused.

Although none of these issues indicated clear harm, they revealed a process that does not inspire confidence. Although written in 2003 the report, unfortunately, remains relevant because the regulations have not changed.

Free markets

Information is the lifeblood of free markets that I assume GE companies would extol. For markets to work properly, information is needed so that consumers can make informed choices.

As such, the GE companies and their supporters should welcome the information that the labeling of GE would provide to consumers.

Some GE supporters have argued that revealing GE ingredients would suggest to consumers that the food is unsafe. But consumers would have no reason to infer that GE was unsafe, anymore than for the other ingredients on the label.

Instead, the resistance of companies and FDA to GE labeling is a hypocritical refutation of free market capitalism.

And more than that, it shows an amazing lack of confidence by these companies in their own products, and their ability to convince the public that they should welcome them.

And if the companies that are making these crops don’t have enough confidence in their own products to trust the market, why should we?

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