You may have noticed the impressive grassroots movement gathering steam lately over the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. Recently, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to enact a law to require such labels, and 26 other states have introduced similar bills this year. Millions of Americans are demanding more transparency in the food supply and our elected officials are finally responding, after decades of work by groups like Center for Food Safety (CFS).
But one advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), often seen as a leader in nutrition policy, stands virtually alone in its continued opposition to labeling GE foods. This stance is troubling and confusing given how outspoken CSPI has been for decades on food labeling and consumer information.
CSPI’s position, explained in this recent news interview, boils down to three claims:
1) GE foods do not present either safety or nutrition concerns;
2) Processed GE foods do not contain genetically-engineered material;
3) Non-GE labels are “misleading” because they imply a safer or superior food.
Let’s take these one by one.
GE Food Safety is an Open Question
First, CSPI claims that genetically engineered food labeling is “not a food safety or a nutritional issue - it’s not like allergens or trans fats.”
This is a pretty bold statement to make given how little information is available on the safety of GE foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require or conduct safety studies on GE foods, nor does it approve GE foods as safe. Instead, there is only confidential consultation between industry and FDA, where GE food developers decide what summary information to provide the agency; and even that is voluntary. So we are essentially taking the biotech industry’s word that GE food is not hazardous. CSPI itself acknowledges that the government isn’t doing its job, calling on FDA to “require a mandatory pre-market approval process” and “formally approve that the crop is safe for human and animal consumption.” How can CSPI on the one hand admit we need more rigorous oversight, while on the other claim there is no safety issue?
Further, while obviously no substitute for adequate food safety oversight, mandatory labeling of GE foods will allow the detection of adverse health effects of consuming such foods. Without labeling, anyone who gets sick from eating a GE food has no way of identifying the cause.
It’s also odd that CSPI would distinguish allergens from GE foods, given that allergic reactions, which can be life-threatening, are the most widely accepted health threat posed by GE organisms. As Michael Hanson, senior scientist with Consumers Union, noted in his testimony in support of the Connecticut GE labeling bill in March: “The human safety problems that may arise from GE include introduction of new allergens or increased levels of naturally occurring allergens, of plant toxins, and changes in nutrition.”
He also testified in regards to the GE salmon moving closer to federal approval (despite overwhelming public opposition): “Company data suggest that it may exhibit increased allergenicity.” And although the federal government has approved numerous pesticides genetically engineered into corn and cotton, in 2009 they also funded research to better determine if they can trigger food allergies. In the meantime, the allergy risk from GE food justifies a safety-based label similar to those warning that a food contains nuts.
Many Food Labels Are Not About Safety
In addition, safety is not the defining factor for requiring food labels. We label all sorts of things not based on safety concerns per se. Take basic ingredient labeling, which CSPI supports. We don’t question the safety of every single ingredient that foods contain, but each is still required to appear on the label, because consumers have the right to know what is in their food.
Similarly, we don’t require the listing of fat, sugar, salt, and vitamins and minerals because we think those items are dangerous; rather, we require them because it helps the consumer make more informed choices, a concept with which CSPI appears to agree. To make its case for requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts and other nutrition information, CSPI argues that, without such information, “it’s difficult to make informed and healthy choices.”
Why is labeling GE food any different? It isn’t. Think about it this way: if we know a food ingredient is dangerous, we don’t merely label it, we remove it from store shelves.
Even Processed Foods Often Contain GE Material
CSPI also claims: “the great majority of foods that contain highly purified oils, corn sugars and cornstarch ingredients made from GE crops contain essentially no genetically modified DNA or protein.”
First, CSPI’s cleverly worded statement applies to a minority of foods, mainly sodas containing high-fructose corn syrup, as well as corn and soybean oil. But it excludes those foods most likely to have substantial amounts of GE ingredients: corn-based cereals, tortillas, tacos, corn chips, corn flour, corn grits, etc. For example, an important report called “Cereal Crimes” from the Cornucopia Institute in 2011 listed several cereal brands (labeled “natural”) that tested positive for high levels of GE ingredients, “sometimes as high as 100%.” Those products included well-known brands such as Kellogg-owned Kashi’s GoLean and General Mills’ Kix, a children’s cereal.
In addition, numerous lawsuits are being filed against food makers using the “natural” label on products containing genetically engineered ingredients. To make their case, lawyers are conducting independent testing of products such as Frito-Lay snacks and finding genetically engineered proteins. In fact, according to the industry lobby, Grocery Manufacturers Association, an estimated 70% of products on supermarket shelves contain soy or corn ingredients likely to be derived from GE crops.
People Want to Know if Food is Genetically Engineered for Many Reasons
Moreover, consumers care about GE labeling for more than just health reasons. For example, many people know that growing GE crops is an unsustainable practice that harms the environment. The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are designed to withstand herbicides, and therefore promote indiscriminate herbicide use. As a result, genetically engineered crops have increased herbicide use by a substantial 527 million pounds in the 16 years from 1996-2011. Most of this increase is attributable to glyphosate, the active ingredient of Roundup herbicide, sprayed on Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” crops. This heavy use of glyphosate is known to harm plants and wildlife, and some studies suggest harm to farmers as well. Further, the glyphosate onslaught has triggered an epidemic of glyphosate-resistant weeds that in turn lead to greater use of more toxic herbicides. People should have the choice to avoid foods that lead to such environmental harms (a concern CSPI appears to share), as they do with other types of “eco” or “green” labels.
Non-GE Claims Are Not Misleading, the Absence of GE Labeling is
Finally, CSPI also alleges that “non-GMO label claims are misleading, since they falsely imply that food made without GE ingredients is safer or superior in some other way.”
But it is no more misleading to label a food as non-GMO than it is to label “orange juice from concentrate.” Neither statement is about safety. These are strictly factual and non-controversial disclosures. (Same is true for a label disclosing that a food or ingredient is genetically engineered.) Far from misleading consumers, such a label would empower those who want GE foods to purchase them, and enable others to avoid them. If anything is misleading, it’s the lack of mandatory labeling of GE foods. CSPI again entirely misses the point that food labeling is not only about safety or being superior, but about informed choice.
CSPI is Out of Step with Democracy
Finally, CSPI is in a dwindling minority in its position. Numerous polls indicate that Americans want GE food labeling, with most results topping 90 percent. What other issue can you get 90 percent of Americans to agree upon? Last fall, six million Californians voted for GE food labels, despite a $45 million campaign of lies and dirty tricks to stop Proposition 37 from passing, just narrowly.
Moreover, 1.2 million people have now endorsed a Center for Food Safety legal petition from 2011 demanding FDA require the labeling of GE food. In addition, 64 other nations already require GE labels, including Japan, Australia, Brazil, China, Russia, and the entire European Union. It is only a matter of time before we see required labeling of genetically engineered food in the U.S. Meanwhile, having an organization such as CSPI speak out against GE food labeling is counterproductive. We hope they soon join the growing chorus of voices and support our right to know.