An unprecedented coalition of scientists, religious leaders, health professionals, consumers and chefs filed suit today, May 27, 1998, against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to obtain mandatory safety testing and labeling of genetically engineered foods. The suit alleges that the current FDA policy, which permits such altered foods to be marketed without testing and labels, violates the agency’s statutory mandate to protect public health and provide consumers with relevant information about the foods they eat. The suit, filed in federal district court, also alleges that the FDA policy is a violation of religious freedom.
A press conference announcing the suit will be held starting at 9:45 A.M. May 27, 1998, at the Zenger Room at the National Press Club, 14th and F Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20045. Several of the plaintiffs will be speaking and a copy of the complaint and other relevant materials will be available.
In the suit, plaintiffs challenge the marketing of 33 different genetically engineered whole foods that are currently being sold without labeling or required safety testing. These include potatoes, tomatoes, soy, corn, squash and many other fruits and vegetables to which a variety of new genes from different species have been added. These genetically engineered whole foods are also used as ingredients in processed foods, and have been reported to be present in a number of mass consumed food products from major soy-based baby formulas to some of the most popular corn chip brands. Because of FDA’s failure to require labeling, millions of American infants, children and adults are consuming genetically engineered food products each day without their knowledge.
A central issue in the case involves the consumers’ right to know about the new genetic material being engineered into their food. Labeling and testing are also vital given the health risks that scientists have associated with gene-altered foods. The most pressing health concern involves the impact of inserting novel genes into fruits, vegetables and other whole foods. With each gene insertion there is the possibility that a nontoxic element in the food could become toxic and create a human health hazard. This remains the most probable explanation for the dozens of deaths and thousands of serious illness caused by a genetically engineered food supplement, L- tryptophan, several years ago.
Food allergies are another major health concern with genetically engineered foods. Those with food allergies will often have no way of knowing what is in genetically engineered foods and therefore what foods to avoid. Health professionals are also concerned that the mass consumption of genetically engineered foods could make treating infections more difficult in that some genetically modified foods contain antibiotic resistant genes.
In addition to health concerns, millions of Americans feel obligated to refrain from some or all genetically engineered foods based on their ethical and religious principles. Many Jews and Muslims need to avoid foods with substances from specific animals, while devout vegetarians want to avoid substances from any animal. Additionally, a considerable portion of the population is religiously motivated to avoid all genetically engineered foods. The religious plaintiffs allege that by refusing to label, the FDA is significantly infringing their free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Dr. Philip Regal, a professor at the University of Minnesota and an internationally recognized expert on plant ecology stated, “Over the last fifteen years, I and other scientists have put the FDA on notice about the potential dangers of genetically engineered foods. Instead of responsible regulation we have seen bureaucratic bungling and obfuscation that have left public health and the environment at risk.”
“The FDA has placed the interests of a handful of biotechnology companies ahead of their responsibility to protect public health,” stated Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety and co-counsel on the case. “By failing to require testing and labeling of genetically engineered foods, the agency has made consumers unknowing guinea pigs for potentially harmful, unregulated food substances.”
Rick Moonen, nationally recognized chef and partner of Oceana and Molyvos restaurants in New York City stated, “People come to Oceana because they trust me. They know that I’m going to source out the highest quality ingredients in the market for their dining experience. By not requiring mandatory labeling and safety testing of all genetically engineered foods, the government is taking away my ability to assure customers of the purity of the foods they eat at my restaurants.”