Secrecy Still Protects Genetically Modified Foods from Disclosure

The use of genetically engineered (GE) crops has increased enormously over the last decade, without a corresponding increase in government oversight. Industry has fought hard against strict oversight and testing and has even blocked efforts to label GE food products as such, leaving U.S. consumers in the dark about how their food is produced and what it contains. As consumers have become increasingly concerned about food safety and health, demands for federal and state food labeling legislation have intensified.

Genetically engineered food, also referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is created when a plant or animal receives genetic material from a different source – sometimes a different species – in a way that would not happen without human intervention. The most common GE crops in the United States are soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Since many processed foods in the U.S. contain high fructose corn syrup or soy protein, it is estimated that more than half the foods in grocery stores contain GE products.

Many scientists continue to have concerns regarding the ecological and public health impacts of GE foods. In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine highlighted several animal studies that indicated serious health risks associated with GE food, including infertility, immune system problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the digestive system. In addition, tests show that GE crops can induce allergies. Despite these concerns, the agricultural industry continues to push for expanded use of GE crops with little to no oversight, disclosure, or impact testing.

GE Crops Continue to Get Approvals

On Dec. 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a controversial strain of GE drought-resistant corn formulated by Monsanto. The USDA heard from more than 45,000 people and organizations that were opposed to the company's approval petition on GE corn, and the agency only received 21 comments in support. The opposition comments included a letter with 6,335 signatures, more than 16,000 similar comments from a write-in campaign, and a consolidated document of 22,500 comments. The majority of comments expressed general opposition to GE crops and concern over the potential health and environmental effects of such crops. Further, many worried that the approval process relies too heavily on company safety testing, without allowing independent studies of health risks.

As is the case with previous GE products, the new corn has not been independently peer reviewed or tested in independent labs. In February 2011, the USDA approved three new kinds of GE foods: alfalfa, corn used to produce ethanol, and sugar beets.

One of the main reasons for the lack of independent studies on the health risks of GE crops is that under U.S. patent law, companies are not required to reveal anything that could be classified as a "trade secret." Corporations like Monsanto have restricted research on their GE crops by refusing to provide independent scientists with seeds. Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, believes that beyond trade secrets concerns, "it's likely that the companies fear something else as well: An experiment could reveal that a genetically engineered product is hazardous or doesn't perform as promised."

In December 2011, the USDA opened 60-day public comment periods on two additional petitions for approval of GE foods. The first petition involves Dow’s new GE corn that is designed to better resist 2,4-D, a herbicide most famous for its use as a main ingredient in the highly toxic Agent Orange. Studies have found that 2,4-D may cause cancer, as well as infertility, birth defects, organ toxicity, and neurological effects, and there is concern that the herbicide will be used more widely on crops specifically designed to resist its toxic effects.

The second petition involves Monsanto’s new GE soybeans, which have been engineered to contain a high level of an omega-3 fatty acid, commonly found in fish oil, for use in yogurt, granola bars, and spreads. The omega-3 soybean will be the first agricultural product genetically engineered for nutritional purposes, as omega-3 fatty acids are essential to human growth and development, but omega-3 fatty acids do not naturally occur in soybeans, leaving many scientists, health professionals, and public interest organizations to question the safety of injecting animal genes into plants. The public has until Feb. 27 to comment on the two petitions.

Americans are Demanding Food Labeling

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled against requiring labels for GE foods in 1992. Since then, other countries have taken the issue more seriously and have begun to require labeling. The European Union began requiring labeling for GE foods in 1997, and other countries around the world have followed their lead in mandating labeling, including Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and China. The U.S. is one of the only developed countries that does not require GE foods to be labeled.

Public opinion polls consistently find that Americans want to know what is in their food and heavily favor the labeling of food products that contain genetically modified ingredients. In 2003, an ABC News poll found that 93 percent of respondents supported mandatory GE food labeling: more than half said they believe GE foods are unsafe. This is, of course, why businesses resist labeling so strongly – it would hurt their sales or force them to modify their production practices. In March 2011, an MSNBC Health poll revealed that support for GE labeling stood at nearly 90 percent. According to one pollster, "A free market depends on open information from which to base decisions."

In the absence of federal requirements to label GE food, citizens’ initiatives on GE labeling are gaining support. The Committee for the Right to Know is aiming to get an initiative on the California ballot for the November elections. The committee, a grassroots coalition of consumer, public health, and environmental organizations, as well as some food companies, submitted the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act of 2012 to the state attorney general’s office in November 2011. For the initiative to get on the ballot, the coalition must gather 560,000 qualifying signatures in the next three months. Advocates hope a win in the nation’s largest state economy will change industry practice and encourage other states to mandate labels.

Efforts to pass federal food labeling laws and standards have not been abandoned, despite resistance from the powerful agricultural and food industries. In October 2011, the Center for Food Safety filed a legal petition with the FDA seeking mandatory labeling of foods made from GE crops. The petition requires a formal response from the FDA and is the first step toward filing a lawsuit against the agency. It is supported by a coalition of approximately 350 organizations, representing public interest and consumer organizations, the health care industry, food and farming organizations, and businesses. The coalition has also launched a website petition campaign and is encouraging consumers to pressure the FDA to require labeling on GE products.

Legislation was also introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) in December 2011 (for the sixth time since 1999). The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act of 2011 (H.R. 3553) would:

amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Federal Meat Inspection Act, and the Poultry Products Inspection Act to require that food that contains a genetically engineered material, or that is produced with a genetically engineered material, be labeled accordingly.

The bill, which has 12 co-sponsors, has been referred to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"Genetic engineers have dramatically altered the food we consume, disrupting entire ecosystems and contaminating crops with potentially devastating effects on our long-term health," Kucinich said in a press release. "My common sense legislation will finally allow informed consumers to make their own decisions and to vote with their wallets. People have a right to know how their food is made and whether or not it has been genetically modified," stated Kucinich.

Image in teaser by flickr user snebtor, used under a Creative Commons license.

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