Insights by Goldie
Sound Consumer | February 2001
by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist
Q: I signed some letters at PCC a few months ago to support a law to label genetically engineered (GE) foods. What's going to happen with labeling in a new administration and what can consumers do?
A: There is much you can do! First, The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods (referred to as The Campaign) informs us that bills to require labels on GE foods will be re-introduced soon before the new U.S. House and Senate. The Campaign is a key source of information and provides form letters that you may send to legislators, manufacturers and others, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees food labeling. Send your comments to lawmakers ASAP, as it seems legislation is needed to protect the consumers right to know what's in our food.
FDA proposes voluntary guidelines
The FDA recently issued new proposed rules to label GE foods, but it's giving the public only until March 13, 2001 to submit written comments on the plan.
The FDA's 17-page proposal supports "voluntary" labels, even as the latest Harris poll shows 86 percent of Americans surveyed say labels should be required on GE foods. The FDA's outline for voluntary labels is called "Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Developed Using Bioengineering - Draft Guidance."
Since the new "guidance for industry" is "voluntary" rather than mandatory, it will not require labeling of GE foods. It would prohibit labels with terms such as "GMO," "genetically modified," or "GMO free."
While the FDA's "guidance for industry" would require food developers to notify FDA four months in advance of marketing a biotech food or animal feed, this is not a significant improvement over the current status quo. The biotech industry is not required to conduct long-term safety tests before a product hits the market. The biotech companies determine themselves whether their products warrant "toxicological" or "analytical" tests. The proposed rules would not change that.
The effect is a dilution of the truth, which is that genetically modified plants or animals are not "substantially equivalent" to the originals as industry would try to have us believe. They are so different that they're patented! They include new genes, bacterial vectors, viral promoters and antibiotic markers that should go through the rigorous safety tests required of all "food additives." Under the FDA's 1992 policy developed by the previous Bush administration, the FDA considers GE crops to be essentially the same as those produced by conventional breeding methods and therefore not subject to the same regulatory controls as food additives.
Clearly, the FDA is refusing to listen to the vast majority of U.S. consumers, as well as many concerned scientists, who want labeling that's informative, protects their right to choose and protects their right to make an informed choice. The FDA has bowed to effective lobbying by industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Food Processors Association, which all along have attempted to block truth in labeling on this issue. See The Campaign's website (www.thecampaign.org) for help on sending comments about the FDA's voluntary labeling proposal or write: Docket No 00D-1598, FDA, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.
Consumer report on labeling
The very highly respected Consumer Federation of America (CFA) has also just issued a truly blistering report on the U.S. failure to appropriately regulate genetically modified foods. The CFA association represents approximately 270 pro-consumer groups, including Consumers Union (CU), American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and numerous credit unions and grassroots activists across the country.
The 258-page report from CFA points out loopholes that permit marketing with little governmental oversight. The report also says "there appears to be an emerging worldwide consensus that GM foods should be labeled" and "the reasons for requiring labels on GM foods are so compelling that the matter should no longer be voluntary. Public acceptance of GM foods, even in the U.S., probably requires that consumers be given a choice."
USDA solicits comments
In a related development, the USDA is requesting comments on "how the USDA can facilitate marketing grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables and nuts in a market that includes both crops derived from biotechnology and other crops."
Comments will be accepted by USDA until February 28, 2001 only — so act fast! If you use the Web, you can quickly give your input by logging onto www.thecampaign.org/ usdacomments.htm and using their convenient response form. If you don't "Web," write to: Richard Hardy, USDA-GIPSA, Room 0757-S, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20250-3650.
Goldie Wins National Appointment
Goldie Caughlan, PCC's Nutrition Education Manager, has been appointed to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The outgoing U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, announced Goldie's appointment just three days before leaving office with the Clinton administration.
Goldie received a congratulatory call at press time from Keith Jones, Program Manager of the National Organic Program under the USDA. He telephoned to extend congratulations and to say he looks forward to working with Goldie on the NOSB. The appointments follow a nomination and review process that began last summer.
The NOSB includes four organic farmers, one retailer, 2 organic handlers, three environmentalists, three consumers, one scientist and one certifying agent. Goldie will serve as one of the consumer representatives. She says she's "deeply honored and gratified" by the appointment and looks forward to working with other board members.
Other new appointees include George Seimon, CEO of Organic Valley, and Jim Riddle, a certifying agent from Minnesota. The NOSB is authorized to assist in developing organic standards and for advising the USDA Secretary on implementation of the Organic Foods Productiong Act of 1990.