If you want to know if your food contains gluten, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, trans-fats or MSG, you simply read the label. But if you want to know if your food is genetically engineered (GE), you’re not going to find any information on the package.
Why? Because unlike most other developed countries—such as the 15 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and China—the U.S. has no laws requiring labeling of GE foods. Yet polls have repeatedly shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans—over 90% in most polls—believe GE foods should be labeled.
The story is no different here in Hawaii. In fact, a poll released in the Honolulu Star Advertiser showed that three-quarters of voters interviewed in a Hawaii Poll want the state Legislature to pass a law requiring that genetically engineered foods sold in Hawaii carry labels.
Unsuspecting consumers by the tens of millions are being allowed to purchase and consume unlabeled GE foods, like recently approved GE salmon, despite the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does no independent testing of their safety. In fact, documents uncovered in prior Center for Food Safety litigation show that scientists within FDA indicated that the foods could pose serious risks. Nonetheless, FDA only holds a voluntary (and confidential) meeting with industry before allowing commercialization of these foods and relies entirely on the data the industry chooses to show them.
So why has the FDA not acted to require labeling?
Almost 20 years ago, FDA decided that GE foods did not need to be labeled because they were not “materially” different from other foods. While the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires the FDA to prevent consumer deception by clarifying that a food label is misleading if it omits significant, “material” information, the FDA issued a policy statement in 1992 that limited what it considered “material” to only changes in food that could be noted by taste, smell or other senses. Since GE foods can’t be “sensed” in this way, FDA declared them to be “substantially equivalent” to conventionally produced foods, and no labeling was required. It was, and remains, a political decision, not a scientific one. Two decades later, this outdated policy is still in effect. Yet the 21st century has brought fundamental changes to food that cannot be sensed; first through genetic engineering and, soon, through nanotechnology and synthetic biology.
In the spring of 2000, the FDA announced that labeling of GE foods would remain voluntary, even though there was no indication that any company would voluntarily label GE foods. And in the 12 years since, none have. Companies who have eliminated GE ingredients to add “NON-GMO” labels to their products have faced tight regulations and litigation challenges from industry, while the FDA allows other companies continue to use GE ingredients in secret.