At odds over labeling of bioengineered foods

by Jay Sjerven
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Contrary views over whether bioengineered foods should be required to carry special product labeling were voiced in June, giving fresh fuel to both sides of the debate. The American Medical Association’s House of Delegates meeting in Chicago on June 20 adopted a statement on bioengineered foods and food ingredients supporting pre-market testing of such foods but opposing special product labeling. Two days earlier, Debra Brown, California’s secretary of state, certified that enough valid signatures were gathered to place an initiative on the state’s Nov. 6 general election ballot that, if passed, would require special labeling of such foods.

The AMA statement asserted there was “no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.”

The AMA added it supported “mandatory pre-market systematic safety assessments of bioengineered foods” and research into the potential consequences to the environment of bioengineered crops. But it also said it recognized “the many benefits offered by bioengineered crops and foods” and said it did not support a moratorium on planting bioengineered crops. Instead, the AMA “encouraged ongoing research developments in food biotechnology.”

The AMA statement concluded, “Our AMA urges government, industry, consumer policy groups, and the scientific and medical communities to educate the public and improve the availability of unbiased information and research activities on bioengineered foods.”

Commenting on the AMA statement, Patrice Harris, a member of the AMA board, said, “The science-based labeling policies of the FDA do not support special product labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. The AMA adopted policy supporting this science-based approach, recognizing that there currently is no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods.

“Recognizing the public’s interest in the safety of bioengineered foods, the new policy also supports mandatory FDA pre-market systemic safety assessments of these foods as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public. We also urge the FDA to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) in response to the AMA statement said, “We commend the AMA’s House of Delegates for its vote in support of the continued use of genetically engineered ingredients in the food supply. Today’s action is in line with the position of the FDA and numerous regulatory and scientific bodies that agree foods and beverages that contain genetically engineered ingredients are safe and materially no different than those foods that do not contain genetically engineered ingredients.”

The GMA continued, “Because foods and beverages that contain genetically engineered ingredients are no different than those that do not, mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients is unnecessary and may actually confuse consumers. Labeling information should be reserved for important food safety and/or nutrition information, such as allergen warnings or front-of-pack nutrition labeling.”

Meanwhile, in California, Secretary of State Brown declared a petition campaign organized by the Committee for the Right to Know had garnered enough valid voter signatures to put the initiative titled “Genetically Engineered Foods Mandatory Labeling Initiative Statute” on the state’s Nov. 6 ballot.

According to the state’s attorney general, the measure would require labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if they are made from plants and animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. It would prohibit labeling or advertising such foods as “natural.” It would exempt foods that are: certified organic; unintentionally produced with bioengineered material; made from animals fed or injected with bioengineered material but not bioengineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of bioengineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.

“We’re thrilled that Californians will have the opportunity this November to vote for the right to know what’s in our food,” said Stacy Malkan, a spokesperson for the Committee for the Right to Know. “It’s about our fundamental right to make informed choices about the food we eat and feed our families.”

Opposing the ballot measure is an organization called the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition. The coalition includes the California Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s Chamber of Commerce as well as various statewide ethnic chambers of commerce, the GMA and taxpayer and lawsuit abuse groups. The coalition asserted the proposition would ban the sale of tens of thousands of demonstrably safe grocery products that contain bioengineered ingredients unless they are repackaged, relabeled or made using non-bioengineered ingredients just for sale in California. The coalition argued the costs involved were not warranted and the measure, if passed, may open the door to a spate of lawsuits against family farmers, small grocers and food companies.

Kathy Fairbanks, spokesperson for the coalition, pointed to the AMA statement on bioengineered foods, saying, “The AMA’s rejection of mandatory labeling is consistent with the overwhelming majority of respected medical doctors, scientists and health experts that have concluded that foods made with the benefits of modern biotechnology are safe, and that labeling these foods is unnecessary.”

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