Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Why don't we label genetically modified food?
Released October 18, 2002When you buy reconstituted orange juice at the supermarket, the label tells you it is "from concentrate." For this you can thank the Food and Drug Administration, with its mandate to promote "honest and fair dealing with consumers."
Part of the idea is to ensure that foods are truthfully labeled so producers cannot deceive consumers. Labels must include information about amounts, contents, additives such as vitamins and preservatives, and processing methods ("from concentrate").
So why is your bag of corn chips containing genetically modified corn silent about this fact? Because the FDA has ruled that consumers shouldn't care about the difference between genetically engineered and traditionally bred plants—this despite the remarkable amount of novel manipulation to which GM corn has been subjected.
Not everyone thinks the FDA alone should determine the status of GM food labeling. In November Oregon voters will go to the ballot box and vote on Measure 27, which would require mandatory labeling of GM food. But this is an issue all of us, not only Oregonians, should consider.
To produce GM corn, scientists begin by isolating genes from an assortment of viruses, bacteria and plants. They biochemically unite these genes to make a wholly novel construct. It contains at least five different genes from these different sources. The construct is multiplied and then applied as a coating to gold or tungsten dust, which is then shot into embryonic plants.
During this process the construct is often broken up into fragments, some of which are incorporated in the chromosomes of a few of the plants. (When the DNA enters the plant, "engineering" stops and the scientists can only establish after the fact what the plant has done with their intrusion.) Some of these plants may be altered as envisioned by the scientists and become the breeding stock for GM crops.
Most of the GM corn on the market today produces a protein toxin, Bt, which kills caterpillars, and also a protein that makes the plant resistant to an antibiotic (for testing). So every cell of every kernel of GM corn contains an array of novel genes and novel proteins. This makes it, in substance and in function, without a doubt different from any kernel of corn that has ever existed before on earth.
Why would we want to know that our orange juice was formulated by adding water to concentrate, but not want to know about radical processing that alters the food crop, adds antibiotic and insecticidal factors to our diet, and poses wholly unknown risks to the environment? The FDA's mandate to protect and deal honestly with consumers includes the obligation to regulate food labels "to ensure that they are truthful." But the truth, in the case of GM food, appears to have a low priority.
As one FDA scientist opined, "Consumers have a right to know—but not to know everything." This is a strange statement coming from a representative of "one of the nation's oldest and most respected consumer protection agencies," as the FDA describes itself. The FDA has gone to great lengths to "prove" that there is no difference between GM food and food from traditionally bred crops. And if there is no difference, there is no reason to label.
This is compelling logic, as long as you leave out most of the facts.
What has driven the FDA to treat GM foods so differently from orange juice? Dan Glickman, President Clinton's secretary of agriculture, gave perhaps the most succinct and upfront explanation while reflecting back on his time at the agency: "Regulators even viewed themselves as cheerleaders for biotechnology. It was viewed as science marching forward, and anyone who wasn't marching forward was a Luddite." In the name of authoritative "science-based" policy—which it is not—the government locked arms with the biotechnology industry to prevent at all costs the labeling of GM foods.
Not all countries have eliminated the transparency that a label can provide. In the European Union, consumer information is a right. As David Byrne, European commissioner for health and consumer protection, has stated, "Labels that cover all GM-derived products ensure that our consumers are able to choose a GM product or a non-GM product. Our consumers are demanding this. They are entitled to choice and full information."
Were the FDA taking its consumer protection mandate seriously, it would shift its commitment from the biotech industry back to informing consumers about food. And that's something we consumers should demand.
she's full (: | 6:20 AM|
Genetically Modified Foods.
-Potential human health impact: allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unknown effects Potential environmental impact: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity
- Access and Intellectual Property
-Domination of world food production by a few companies
-Increasing dependence on Industralized nations by developing countries
-Biopiracy—foreign exploitation of natural resources
-Violation of natural organisms' intrinsic values
-Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
-Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa
-Stress for animal
-Not mandatory in some countries (e.g., United States)
-Mixing GM crops with non-GM confounds labeling attempts
-New advances may be skewed to interests of rich countries
How are GM foods labeled?
Labeling of GM foods and food products is also a contentious issue. On the whole, agribusiness industries believe that labeling should be voluntary and influenced by the demands of the free market. If consumers show preference for labeled foods over non-labeled foods, then industry will have the incentive to regulate itself or risk alienating the customer. Consumer interest groups, on the other hand, are demanding mandatory labeling. People have the right to know what they are eating, argue the interest groups, and historically industry has proven itself to be unreliable at self-compliance with existing safety regulations. The FDA's current position on food labeling is governed by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which is only concerned with food additives, not whole foods or food products that are considered "GRAS" - generally recognized as safe. The FDA contends that GM foods are substantially equivalent to non-GM foods, and therefore not subject to more stringent labeling. If all GM foods and food products are to be labeled, Congress must enact sweeping changes in the existing food labeling policy.
There are many questions that must be answered if labeling of GM foods becomes mandatory. First, are consumers willing to absorb the cost of such an initiative? If the food production industry is required to label GM foods, factories will need to construct two separate processing streams and monitor the production lines accordingly. Farmers must be able to keep GM crops and non-GM crops from mixing during planting, harvesting and shipping. It is almost assured that industry will pass along these additional costs to consumers in the form of higher prices.
Secondly, what are the acceptable limits of GM contamination in non-GM products? The EC has determined that 1% is an acceptable limit of cross-contamination, yet many consumer interest groups argue that only 0% is acceptable. Some companies such as Gerber baby foods42 and Frito-Lay43 have pledged to avoid use of GM foods in any of their products. But who is going to monitor these companies for compliance and what is the penalty if they fail? Once again, the FDA does not have the resources to carry out testing to ensure compliance.
What is the level of detectability of GM food cross-contamination? Scientists agree that current technology is unable to detect minute quantities of contamination, so ensuring 0% contamination using existing methodologies is not guaranteed. Yet researchers disagree on what level of contamination really is detectable, especially in highly processed food products such as vegetable oils or breakfast cereals where the vegetables used to make these products have been pooled from many different sources. A 1% threshold may already be below current levels of detectability.
Finally, who is to be responsible for educating the public about GM food labels and how costly will that education be? Food labels must be designed to clearly convey accurate information about the product in simple language that everyone can understand. This may be the greatest challenge faced be a new food labeling policy: how to educate and inform the public without damaging the public trust and causing alarm or fear of GM food products.
In January 2000, an international trade agreement for labeling GM foods was established44, 45. More than 130 countries, including the US, the world's largest producer of GM foods, signed the agreement. The policy states that exporters must be required to label all GM foods and that importing countries have the right to judge for themselves the potential risks and reject GM foods, if they so choose. This new agreement may spur the U.S. government to resolve the domestic food labeling dilemma more rapidly.
she's full (: | 5:40 AM|