"GMO free" labelling set to become illegal in the US?
January 18, 2001 7:17 PM   Subscribe

"GMO free" labelling set to become illegal in the US? "The U.S. regulatory system is a model around the world because it is grounded in science, not superstition or uninformed emotion." So says the president of a biotech lobby group. Ahem.
posted by holgate (20 comments total)
Now this takes the cake. First of all, the FDA has accepted the specious argument that it's "too difficult" to separate and label modified and unmodified crops. Notwithstanding that US manufacturers already have to do this in order to export to Europe and elsewhere.

It further proposes that labelling food as "GMO free" should be illegal, as it implies an unproven higher degree of safety or quality. Which smacks of hypocrisy from an agency that has tacitly encouraged, through deregulation, the explosion of the US vitamin/supplement market, with its lack of clinical accountability and its weaselly "may improve your life" claims.

In short, the biotech industry has decided that customers don't have the right to know if the food they eat originates from spliced crops. For the leader of its lobby group to say that this sets an example for the rest of the world scares me a great deal. As well as making me wonder which planet he's on.
posted by holgate at 7:31 PM on January 18, 2001

What are "GMO-free" and "GE-free" supposed to mean, anyway? Genetically Modified O...? Genetically E...?

Anyway, the FDA does have a point. An overwhelming chunk of the whole GM-foods debate in Europe is based on fear and emotion. And until this past year there was essentially no consumer concern about GM food in the US, not counting consumers who also happen to work for Greenpiece or something. ;) What little was thought about it last year was mainly due to StarLink, and that's already gone away as well.

Did the FDA deregulate vitamins and supplements? I thought they were always deregulated. In any case, whenever something suspicious does turn up in those areas, the FDA clamps down.
posted by aaron at 8:00 PM on January 18, 2001


Actually, they've been doing a lot of genetic modification on crops for at least 50 years. Things like bombardment of seeds with gamma rays to try to induce mutations or use of mutagenic chemicals, cross breeding with wild relatives trying to find useful genes, and a number of other things like that which have led to what became known as the "green revolution". As a result, the rice grown now in many parts of the world produces substantially more food per acre than before, and corn and wheat have also been modified in many beneficial ways. Many crops have been improved during that time.

The only difference between that and this is that the old ways of creating new genetic information in the plants (radiation and mutagens) were rather shotgun. Now they're actually doing it directly with knowledge.

Tell me, in what way qualitatively is this any different? Why should this approach necessarily be any more dangerous or even particularly noteworthy? It's no more than a faster way of doing what they used to do; the same result could be gotten without direct genetic engineering but it would take longer and cost more. It's simply a detail of implementation, nothing more.

So why in hell is everyone so damned paranoid about it?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:22 PM on January 18, 2001

So why in hell is everyone so damned paranoid about it?

Call it healthy paranoia, if you pardon the pun. What excatly do the biotechs and the producers have to fear from unambiguous labelling, backed up by regulation? Eggs are labelled "free range" to distinguish a production method, without that label implying any difference in their quality or impact on health.

"It's perfectly safe, and no, we're not going to tell you where it is" smacks of precisely the kind of smarter-than-thou attitude adopted towards depleted uranium. And before that, towards BSE. Consumers have been duped too many times: permit them chance to exercise their paranoia.
posted by holgate at 8:52 PM on January 18, 2001

As it stands, for the three weeks I'm in the US next month, I'll just have to wonder whether the soy protein and lecithin, or the maize and the corn syrup would be on the market back home, along with (unlabelled) milk from BGH-treated cows. And since these ingredients go into a huge number of processed foods, it looks like salad for every meal, hold the dressing.
posted by holgate at 8:59 PM on January 18, 2001

What the producers have to fear is that people will shy away from perfectly healthy food for no reason other than paranoia.

I, for one, am glad for this action. It's nice that reason will triumph over hysteria at least one place on earth, and a big enough place to represent a reasonable market. Then in five or ten years when we've proved there's no problem, others around the world will wake up.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:18 PM on January 18, 2001

How about proving that the method is safe before sneaking it into people's food?

posted by palnatoke at 9:28 PM on January 18, 2001

What excatly do the biotechs and the producers have to fear from unambiguous labelling, backed up by regulation?

Plenty, so long as the meanings behind the labels are defined by anti-GM activists.

And I still want to know what those acronyms above mean.
posted by aaron at 9:47 PM on January 18, 2001

This isn't a situation where people are talking about mandatory labeling, this is striking down a manufacturers right to label their product like they want to.

If the manufacturer is going to go to the trouble of using certain ingredients, I cannot see any justification for not allowing them to crow about it.

I think mandatory labeling is going to be too hard to pull off, especially with unwilling participants, but that should not mean Ben & Jerry's cannot provide specific information about the kind of milk they use; especially if there are people who are anxious to know such things.

Let the market take care of it. If enough peoples buying habits are not affected by these warnings, they will fall away. If they catch on, the market will react and do a better job of providing people with what they want. Where is the harm?
posted by thirteen at 10:06 PM on January 18, 2001

Aaron: genetically modified organisms and genetically engineered
posted by thirteen at 10:08 PM on January 18, 2001

"Where is the harm?"

For one, the label "GMO-free" would almost certainly be false for the vast majority of food that we eat. Most of the crops and livestock that humans raise have been genetically modified by millenia of human cultivation. So you'd need some kind of more restrictive term, like "not genetically engineered," although then you'd have to specify what kinds of engineering were allowed--is cross-species pollination okay? Is irradiated seed okay?

"How about proving that the method is safe before sneaking it into people's food?"

Well, why would you assume the method isn't safe?
posted by shylock at 1:12 AM on January 19, 2001

shylock: Well, why would you assume the method isn't safe?

Why would you assume it is?

As holgate says, we in the UK were told for a long time that beef was perfectly safe to eat, while our own government scientists were aware of the presence of BSE. But someone somewhere decided it was 'in the public interest' for us not to know.

To my mind, if my own government has reason to mislead and fail to inform, why would a commercial organisation be any more honourable?
posted by Markb at 2:40 AM on January 19, 2001

It's nice that reason will triumph over hysteria at least one place on earth,

I think you mean "corporate dollars" over "public concern". And anyway, I'd really be wary of adding to the list of things that mark out the US from the rest of the world. The track record isn't all that good.

Remember to be good and open wide while Monsanto gets your dinner ready.
posted by holgate at 3:07 AM on January 19, 2001

Perhaps it makes more sense for foods to be labelled as containing genetically-engineered ingredients in Europe than in the USA. Most foods that have been produced in the EU have to be extensively labelled anyway. I don't know what the US policy is on these things, though...

My thought on it is, that the labelling is provided for the benefit of the consumer (rather than the manufacturer) and should therefore be as informative as possible. Like including 'may contain nuts' on foods that have been produced at plants which also process nuts (and yes, I'm aware that nut allergies are far more dangerous than GE foods have so far proved to be). I want to know if my cheese has been pasteurised or not, where the produce has come from, and what else has been added to it. It shouldn't make a big difference to most people, but if you have a problem with eating GE foods, why shouldn't you have the opportunity to choose not to do so?
posted by Caffa at 3:12 AM on January 19, 2001

is cross-species pollination okay?

Call me a luddite, but there appears to be a subtle difference between helping evolution on its course through cross-pollination, and splicing animal DNA into soya. Because no matter how friendly the two species get, I really don't think they're going to make babies.

People now say "you've just realised that feeding animal brains to cows was a bad idea? Duuuuuh." In years to come, I can see them saying the same about GM.

More hysterical screed from the UK, including the notable comment that it wasn't the GM producers in the US that picked up on the nut allergy that stemmed from one strain of modified soya: "it was the curiosity of the few remaining independent research scientists."

A final thought: if the FDA said that manufacturers weren't allowed to label their food kosher or halal, there'd be an outcry. Again, the only difference between kosher meat and non-kosher is the manner of production and preparation.
posted by holgate at 3:19 AM on January 19, 2001

Most foods that have been produced in the EU have to be extensively labelled anyway
heh, like the jar of peanuts I bought recently - 'This product may contain nuts'......

Still, until I'm satisfied that my American guinea-pig friends have consumed enough GE produce to prove it's safety, I'm not touching the stuff. Eat plenty America, the world waits....
posted by Markb at 3:21 AM on January 19, 2001

Oh, Lord. Unless you're a dirt farmer, you've probably been eating the stuff for at least five years. It is Luddism, in my view, if somewhat understandably. I've been reading on this issue for a long time now, and the amount of mis(dis-?)information out there gets very tiresome. Here's an alternate viewpoint.
posted by Skot at 9:16 AM on January 19, 2001

Unless you're a dirt farmer, you've probably been eating the stuff for at least five years.

Only in the US, the land of corn syrup and soya lecithin.
posted by holgate at 9:40 AM on January 19, 2001

Steven Den Beste said:
So why in hell is everyone so damned paranoid about it?

Because we have learned from history that everything has unexpected side effects.

It is the height of rationalist arrogance to think we can understand the systems we are tampering with to such a degree that we can accurately and completely predict what the results of our changes are going to be. It's like trying to predict the weather a decade in advance.

I am paranoid because I am being forced to take part in a massive experiment which involves tampering with the very stuff my body is made of. I am paranoid because nobody knows if this is safe. Nobody knows what is going to happen. Nobody even knows what "safe" would mean. I have no way to protect myself from whatever danger this tampering may bring, because I can't even find out what is being altered or how.

I want to know. I want to be able to choose to participate in this experiment or not. I want to be able to evaluate the evidence and decide for myself whether this is a risk I want to take. It's my body, after all; why shouldn't I get to choose what feeds it?

Everything has unexpected side effects. I am not willing to hop blindly in the current and find out what they are after it's too late to do anything about them.

Furthermore, we have learned from history that large commercial interests are exceedingly reticent to divulge known harmful side effects of their products. Didn't we learn anything from the tobacco settlement? If, ten years from now, it is discovered that (for a random example) StarLink is strongly connected to bowel cancer, do you really think StarLink's manufacturer is going to admit this? Hell no - they'll fight it with lies and statistics just like Philip Morris did. But this time, nobody will even know whether they're consuming the product in question.

Why is requiring that genetically modified foods carry labels stating as much a problem? The meat-packing industries made a similar fuss when Upton Sinclair started complaining about the quantities of rat shit and other debris being packed into meat - complaining about lost profits and whatnot - but I think we're all glad the feds stepped in and did something about it. Similarly, I'm glad the FDA regulates preservatives and forces them to be placed in the ingredient list - now I can avoid them. But I'm sure the food industries complained about that one, too. Well, here we are again, and the industries are complaining about being forced to list another questionable component of their product. Once again, I want to KNOW.

posted by Mars Saxman at 12:42 PM on January 19, 2001

Right. But like I asked, why do you think it would be unsafe? What do you think it would do to you? All they're doing is introducing some new DNA into an organism. And that can't hurt you. The new DNA codes for a new protein, which could do something to you, I suppose, but governments already demand proof that it won't have any adverse health effects if it's not a protein that has already been an established part of the human diet. Hence, StarLink corn was denied approval by the FDA because they thought the natural insecticide it produces might cause allergic reactions, even though organic farmers have been using that same insecticde for decades with no adverse effects.

Maybe the FDA is trying to quell the kind of mass hysteria Europe is experiencing with this mad cow thing. It's never been demonstrated how those ten people in Britain contracted CJD, or even that it's possible to contract CJD from cows with BSE. Moreover, it's unlikely that mad cow disease can be contracted from eating meat (that is, muscle tissue), since the prions that cause BSE and presumably CJD are carried only in the tissues of organs like the brain and spleen. And yet, as a result of the hysteria that ensued, entire herds of cattle were slaughtered and their meat destroyed. People stopped buying steaks and roasts altogether. Even some people in America started avoiding red meat as a result, even though America doesn't import British beef, and BSE has never been found in American cows.
posted by shylock at 2:49 PM on January 19, 2001

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