The Right To Know What You Are Eating

November 22, 2011
SF Gate

An unprecedented agricultural experiment is being conducted at America’s dinner tables. While none of the processed food we ate 20 years ago contained genetically engineered ingredients, now 75 percent of it does – even though the long-term human health and environmental impacts are unknown. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require labeling of genetically engineered foods. But as the current drive to get labeling on the ballot in California confirms, consumers want to know whether our food contains these revolutionary new things.

In 1992, the FDA ruled that genetically engineered foods didn’t need independent safety tests or labeling requirements before being introduced. But one of its own scientists disagreed, warning there were “profound differences” with genetically engineered foods. Genetically engineered seed manufacturers were allowed to sell their products without telling consumers. A 2006 survey found that 74 percent of Americans had no idea that genetically engineered foods were already being sold.

Biotech companies have fought labeling, claiming genetically engineered crops are “substantially the same” and produce larger yields – both unproven claims. But genetically engineered crops have led to the increased use of pesticides, often sold by the same companies that make genetically engineered seeds.

About 94 percent of U.S. grown soybeans are genetically engineered and contain a gene that protects them against glyphosate, now the nation’s most widely used pesticide. But glyphosate is becoming ineffective as “superweeds” become resistant to it, forcing farmers to use even stronger herbicides. Widespread adoption of genetically engineered corn has also led to pesticide resistance.

Almost all the research on the safety of genetically engineered foods has been conducted by the companies that sell them. The potential harm to developing fetuses is of concern. A study of pregnant women found genetically engineered corn toxins in 93 percent of the women and 80 percent of their unborn children. All of their umbilical cords had glyphosate residues. Biotech companies say genetically engineered crops aren’t different – but defend their patent rights by arguing they’re unique and that anybody who grows them without permission should be prosecuted. These companies want it both ways.

Genetically engineered crops are different. They often contain genetic material from different species. Some survive large doses of pesticide, others produce their own pesticide, and many do both. That’s why they must be labeled. A label allows people to choose. It lets the free market, not industry lobbyists, determine the fate of genetically engineered foods. If genetically engineered foods are so great, companies that sell them should be proud to label them.

Fifty countries, including the European Union, require genetically engineered food labeling.

A recent poll found 93 percent of Americans think genetically engineered foods should be labeled. This month, 384,000 people signed a Just Label It ( petition urging the FDA to mandate genetically engineered food labeling nationally. The FDA justifies its refusal to label on an agency rule that requires labeling only if a food tastes or smells different or has a different nutritional value. The FDA should change that policy – or make an exception for genetically engineered foods, as it did for irradiated foods.

The FDA doesn’t let pharmaceutical companies test new drugs on people without their informed consent. Consumers should have the same right to know when it comes to what they eat. But even the narrow dictates of that FDA rule shouldn’t block the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Everything about how they were introduced and spread nationwide, without our knowledge or consent, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Gary Hirshberg is the president and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Yogurt. Eric Schlosser is the author of “Fast Food Nation” and co-producer of the documentary “Food, Inc.”

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