Just Label It: We Have a Right to Know What's In Our Food | Civil Eats

Just Label It: We Have a Right to Know What’s In Our Food

Today, a broadbased coalition of nearly 400 businesses and organizations dedicated to food safety and consumer rights called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, to give consumers the right to know what is in our food. The Just Label It – We Have a Right to Know campaign submitted a petition on behalf of millions of consumers to the FDA calling for the mandatory labeling of GE foods, also referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. These are foods that are altered at the molecular level in ways that could not happen naturally.

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.  In 1992 however, the FDA issued a policy statement that defined “material” by the ability to be sensed by taste, smell, or other senses.  The FDA determined that GE Foods were “substantially equivalent” to conventionally produced foods, so there was no material difference and no labeling was required.  After almost 20 years, this policy is still in effect today.

For example, the FDA is currently deciding whether to deregulate GE salmon and make it commercially available. According to FDA, a salmon that is genetically engineered is not materially different from a non-GE salmon because it does not taste, smell or feel different. Without a label to tell us differently, when eating GE salmon, the public will not know if what they are consuming has been genetically altered.

“We are asking the FDA to change a decade’s old and out of touch policy,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety and lead author of the petition. “Today’s consumers are more informed than ever, and they have a right to know about the foods they are purchasing and consuming. We want the FDA to require labeling on foods intentionally produced using genetic engineering.”

“Polls show that consumers demand transparency in the foods they buy and overwhelmingly support labeling of GE food,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, the public policy division of Consumer Reports. “In order to make informed decisions, the public deserves a truthful marketplace.”

Ninety-five percent of consumers believe GE foods should be labeled according to a poll [PDF] conducted by Consumers Union and 93 percent of the American public want the federal government to require mandatory labeling of GE foods. Labeling is required in other countries, including the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Brazil, and China.

While nearly 90 percent of corn; 94 percent of soy; and 90 percent of cottonseed grown in the US are from GE seeds, the safety of GE crops for human consumption has not been adequately assured [PDF]. Several National Academy of Sciences studies have affirmed that GE crops have the potential to introduce new toxins or allergens into our food and environment.

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Yet, unlike the strict safety evaluations for approval of new drugs, there are no mandatory human clinical trials of GE crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long term testing for human health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals, and limited testing for allergenicity, with some studies raising concerns that GE foods may pose an allergen risk.

“Scientists and consumers alike have many reasons for being concerned about the long-term health and environmental consequences of genetically engineered foods,” said Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, a member of the coalition. “And the scientific debate about the benefits and risks of these crops will continue for a long time. Meanwhile an entire generation will have grown up consuming them.”

The best option to avoid GE foods is to buy USDA certified organic as the organic standards prohibit the use of GE ingredients; to look for Non-GMO Project Verified Non-GMO products; and to buy unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, and avoid packaged food, much of which contains GE ingredients.

The campaign Web site, www.justlabelit.org, allows consumers an easy, one-click method to notify the FDA of their support for the petition and stay up to date on the initiative. It also offers education tools to get informed about GE foods, the benefits of labeling foods and ways to stay engaged through blogs, and social media. The campaign also launched a video that conveys the point of the initiative: Without labeling, families are being kept in the dark.

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Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats. She was a 2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Naomi has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, WIRED, and Consumer Reports magazines. After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.  Read more >

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  1. I love this initiative. It will be interesting to see what happens with it over the next few months.
  2. thanks for the article. what about pet foods? anything? or is that a different beast entirely?
  3. Sara
    GMO labeling is a huge step, but we also need to protect farmers who produce non-GMO seeds. Producing non-GMO seed has become harder and harder unless your fields are geographically isolated from GMO fields. It is very easy for cross-pollination to occur between fields, and GMO free crops to be tainted by cross-pollination from the neighboring fields. Nick's Organic Farm in Potomac, MD is one of the few organic, GMO free seed farms still in existence, and it's existence is being threatened. Check out their website www.savenicksorganicfarm.org.

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