Just Label It

, former senior scientist, Food and Environment | October 6, 2011, 11:46 am EDT
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Genetically engineered (GE) foods have been in our groceries for years, and are found in most processed foods in the U.S. But there is nothing on a box of corn flakes that tells you whether there are GE ingredients in that food—and the GE industry wants it to stay that way.

This is contrary to what the large majority of consumers want. Consumer surveys show that overwhelming majorities (over 90 percent) consistently say that GE content should be disclosed—as documented by a new campaign to require the labeling of GE foods, called “Just Label It!”

The campaign wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reverse its misguided policy that says food companies cannot be required to disclose the GE content in our foods.

When material is not material

Food Ingredient label. Can you find the GE ingredients? Photo by Josh Larios at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rjl20/

Food law says that an ingredient must make a material difference before labeling can be required.  In 1992 FDA decided that engineered foods, say corn kernels, were not materially different than non-engineered corn. FDA defined  “material” as meaning that a consumer could not tell the difference between the GE and non-GE version, that it was essentially the same (substantially equivalent in FDA’s parlance) and safe.

It is clear to me that adding an insect toxin gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) makes a real difference to  corn kernels—one capable of killing insects that could not have been killed before. FDA’s criterion that engineering must be detectable by consumers is largely arbitrary—foods can differ in a variety of ways, including safety, that are invisible to consumers.

In its petition requesting FDA to reverse its stance and require labeling of GE foods, the Center for Food Safety noted that most of the genes in GE crops are patented–which generally requires that genes and crops be materially different than before.

Right to know

One of the important legal arguments made by the petition is that FDA arbitrarily and capriciously narrowed the statutory definition of “material” to exclude other important considerations about what makes foods different. For example, the petition traces the historical legislative definition of material as something to which a “…reasonable man would attach importance in determining his choice of action in a transaction in question.”

Legalities aside, in a healthy democracy, people should have access to information they believe important, especially for something as fundamental as the food we eat. The consistent and overwhelming support for labeling of GE foods, seen in survey after survey for many years, is a strong argument that it is important for people to know whether their food contains GE material.

But is it safe?

Many GE crops may be safe. But it is also clear that GE can introduce harmful genes into foods. In 1996, a research paper revealed that the gene for a major allergen from Brazil nut was unwittingly added to soybeans in an attempt to improve the quality of soy protein (it was not commercialized). Several reports from the National Academy of Sciences have acknowledged that GE could, in some cases, add substances to crops that are harmful to human health or the environment.

The question is then–is the regulation of GE foods adequate? Will it detect GE foods that may be harmful? Unfortunately, the FDA does not approve the safety of GE foods, leaving it instead to the GE companies to determine how to test for safety, perform the tests, and analyze the data. After its short review of the summarized safety data, the FDA sends a letter to the company acknowledging that the company has concluded that the food is safe.

In the only external assessment of GE food safety data submitted to the FDA, I reviewed the FDA process and the data it received for 14 GE foods. There were numerous problems in the quality of data (e.g., lack of appropriate statistical analyses), lack of needed tests, and errors of analysis. And in half of the cases where FDA asked for additional data, the companies simply refused.

Although none of these issues indicated clear harm, they revealed a process that does not inspire confidence. Although written in 2003 the report, unfortunately, remains relevant because the regulations have not changed.

Free markets

Information is the lifeblood of  free markets that I assume GE companies would extol. For markets to work properly, information is needed so that consumers can make informed choices.

As such, the GE companies and their supporters should welcome the information that the labeling of GE would provide to consumers.

Some GE supporters have argued that revealing GE ingredients would suggest to consumers that the food is unsafe. But consumers would have no reason to infer that GE was unsafe, anymore than for the other ingredients on the label.

Instead, the resistance of companies and FDA to GE labeling is a hypocritical refutation of free market capitalism.

And more than that, it shows an amazing lack of confidence by these companies in their own products, and their ability to convince the public that they should welcome them.

And if the companies that are making these crops don’t have enough confidence in their own products to trust the market, why should we?

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  • Doug Gurian-Sherman

    Karl, This is actually a response to your second comment in response to me. For some reason the reply tab was not there under your last comment. I will just respond to some or your more substantive remarks.

    The comments about tenacity and so on were referring to the labeling issue specifically, and about those who are often outspoken in support of GE. I have visited your blog a number of times and generally find it informative, and usually find the posts and comments thoughtful, even when I find many things that I do not agree with (and others that I do). Several prominent scientist supporters of GE have said that regulatory decisions should be based only on science. There is a lot more than science that can contribute to valid decisions about commercializing products, in my opinion, and those that would base all of these decisions only on science strike me as being technocrats. If you don’t fit that description, or disagree with my characterization, that’s fine.

    You seem to suggest, if I understand you correctly, that Monsanto needs to be placated in order for labeling to have any chance. I was not under the impression that Monsanto had veto power over government decisions. They are not even a food company, which actually make the products that would be labeled. On the other hand, they certainly have placed a number of their people in positions of authority in the government. If you are correct, it suggests that our democracy is in pretty bad shape (maybe that is self evident in any case!). Anyway, thanks very much for the political lesson. But if you are correct, and you may be, there is a lot more at stake here than merely GE–and that, from my perspective, demands fighting this as a citizen.

    Part of your argument in the previous post is that segregation needs to be part of the process, but the need for that is not obvious to me. Just use GE corn and label it as such–no segregation necessary. Am I missing something? As it is now, most of the cost and burden from GE that you are content to impose on those that want to avoid GE is already borne by consumers and producers of non-GE or organic food, in the costs of preventing contamination imposed on them by the production of GE crops that they did not ask for. They have to sacrifice parts there fields as borders to limit drift, test for contamination, lose premiums from contamination, alter their planting time to avoid simultaneous flowering with GE neighbors that can reduce yields, and so on. As for testing, this does not need to be very costly depending on the the frequency and tolerances. Testing is already pretty routine for export purposes. And I am not sure that testing would even be necessary for commodity crops that are not segregated, since the way these crops are handled virtually ensures that there is GE content. To label as GE without testing would not be misleading for corn or soy in the US for example. Unless there is segregation for non-GE–where you do not oppose the cost of testing, and where those costs already occur–it all contains GE content. But again, maybe I am missing something in your argument.

    I could make suggestions about how labeling could work, as i already did in several instances, such as using value-neutral language, normal font sizes, and so on. A web site may not be perfect (what is?) but would be helpful. With smart phones consumers could indeed check in the store. And even if not, they could buy or not and then check at home. You ask why people have not already checked web sites. Well, many probably already have, in which case the label would be sufficient of itself. But for others that may not have even been aware that GE was part of the food they buy, the ingredient label could be the first information that would possibly trigger that web search. Add an 800 number for those without computers for good measure.

    But where we disagree seems to be that I see this as part of a process that necessarily involves consumers, as the primary affected stakeholders, determining what they want. Let that process figure it out.

    On the cross breeding issue, comfort with older processes that people feel has not harmed them may not apply to other newer breeding processes. Clearly including them on labels would make things considerably more complicated, especially because they are often a lot harder to track than GE and have not gone through a regulatory process, so it is not even clear what varieties have gone through those processes in many cases. Sometimes practical considerations like this impose limits that there is no easy way around. But also, no one is clamoring for labels for those processes, except possibly on an occasional survey question. There is no demonstrated constituency for it (do you want to try to start one?). So to the extent that labeling is a social issue, which I think is quite relevant, GE is more important then those other processes. You may not be happy with that based on your assessment of the science, but as i suggested, i don’t think that science is the whole story.

    On the issue of risk from GE vs. non-GE pest resistance traits, I guess you will have to be discontent for now. That is a whole separate, complicated discussion that I won’t elaborate on now. For now, I am content to agree with the National Academy that there is a difference that means that GE should be regulated, and that is sufficient argument that GE should also be labeled. I would just reiterate that it is not a matter of there being no risk from breeding, i just think that the range of genes and source organisms that were never in the food supply, and the metabolic dexterity of those organisms, adds to the potential level of risk from GE in some cases. Personally, I am content to accept the level of risk that I see as possible from conventional breeding. Since, in my view, the possible risk from some transgenics could be considerably higher, I am more concerned about those, even though they are likely to be the exception in my opinion.

    As for pesticides, while as a group they present much higher risk than most GE, they are also regulated much more tightly (not for farmworkers though). The testing is MUCH more rigorous, and residue levels are set. That system is also imperfect, and allows a lot more environmental harm than it should. It does not get at possible harm from combinations of pesticides, and so on. But it is also safe to assume that virtually all foods not grown organically have been treated with some pesticides. I may be wrong, but to the extent that people think about food at all, I think most understand that. That level of knowledge does not exist about GE, and GE is not yet as ubiquitous as pesticides (on a variety of crops), so there is less need for labeling pesticide use at this point. And finally, as with tissue culture, etc., there does not appear to be a significant constituency for labeling it.

    As for the trait and the method being the same thing, I don’t think you followed my argument. I was not suggesting they are the same thing, but I do agree that the GE method makes a difference in some cases. And it is the lack of adequate regulation that makes me want GE labeled. To put it another way, IF risk was the only issue, I would be okay (speaking personally) with not having labels for GE that was safe. But the problem is, and why the GE process matters, that the regulatory system is not capable of reliably distinguishing safe GE from riskier GE. So I can’t be confident in general in the safety of any GE food (even ones that turn out to be safe). That is, in my opinion, why GE needs to be labeled, as a safety issue, as a process.

    I fully understand that many pro-GE scientists disagree with my assessment that GE has a greater risk, occasionally, than does breeding (and most of the NRC reports did not equate GE risk with breeding in terms of the magnitude of risk, contrary to the assertion of several pro-GE scientists). But we will have to agree to disagree about that.

    On allergenicity, yes, lack of digestibility of Cry9C was the main reason for not approving it. I was part of the team at EPA that made those assessments. But I am not aware that protein size has anything to do with lack of digestibility. And part of the problem with the in vitro digestibility test is that some food allergens that were used to calibrate the system are stable for only a short time–about a minute or two. So unfortunately there is almost a continuum between very stable and completely unstable represented by actual food allergens. That could complicate interpretation of the results for some GE proteins. And also unfortunately, there are no other biochemical tests (homology is often of limited value for proteins new to the food supply) as redundancy. That’s part of the reason that I say that the allergy tests are not very robust.

    And I agree that allergen variability in varieties, as with MalD1 in apple, is relevant as a control or standard. But it is also a qualitative difference to introduce a completely new allergen, if that happens, because then additional people are likely to become sensitive, and depending on its allergenicity, the reactions could be worse.

    Finally, I don’t think that CFS was referring only to substantial equivalence when they wrote that FDA was using 19th century ideas. But I will let them explain their arguments. It should be needless to explain that I do not agree with CFS, or anyone else, in all cases, but I think that their petition makes many good points. I am not a lawyer, so I can’t vouch for the soundness of their legal arguments. But so far, the courts have certainly found them to be convincing more often then not!

  • This is a pretty good outline of some of the arguments in favor of GE labeling of food ingredients, but while Doug Gurian-Sherman attempts to ground his argument in certain principles, the result is a contradictory position. I’d like to start out by saying that I am not against mandatory labeling of GE crops per se, however the arguments I have examined in favor of the forms most frequently advocated have been unconvincing.

    Doug starts out by discussing the issue of what constitutes a “material difference” (technically a “material fact”) according to the FDA. He says, “FDA defined “material” as meaning that a consumer could not tell the difference between the GE and non-GE version, that it was essentially the same (substantially equivalent in FDA’s parlance) and safe.” This description is at best incomplete.
    According to the 1992 source document for this information, http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/Biotechnology/ucm096095.htm this is instead described,
    “Thus, consumers must be informed, by appropriate labeling, if a food derived from a new plant variety differs from its traditional counterpart such that the common or usual name no longer applies to the new food, or if a safety or usage issue exists to which consumers must be alerted.”
    Moreover, in this document the FDA determined that a food may need to be labeled if genetic engineering significantly altered its nutritional content, for example. Nutritional content is usually invisible to the consumer as well, so to say that the FDA defined material facts only in terms of safety and what the consumers could detect is misleading.

    Doug is right to bring up arbitrariness in defining what is “materially different”, however the FDA does not require labeling of what techniques are used in the development of any plants used for food, whether it is mutagenesis, grafting, inter-species hybridization, polyploidization, tissue culture, or just rubbing two flowers together. Each one of these methods can result in a compositional difference, or new genes whose products have never before been consumed on a wide scale. Bt is a detectable compositional difference, but so are the different types of starch found in flint and dent corn, and by that logic, all corn-based foods must therefore be labeled as to whether it came from a flint or dent (or flour, etc) variety. Any gene that is “capable of killing insects that could not have been killed before” even if added through traditional breeding should therefore be labeled, if Doug is confident in the weight of this argument. Otherwise, he is arbitrarily choosing to label one technique, and not the other. There is, for example, a new gene being bred into corn from an obscure variety that produces a toxin that kills corn borers. No reason is given as to why a toxin gene introduced through one method constitutes a material fact about the food but that a toxin gene introduced through another method does not.

    There is a subtle equivocation going on here that needs to be pointed out. If the presence of Bt endotoxin in corn is a material fact that should require labeling, it does not follow logically that all GE-derived traits would constitute material facts that must be labeled. Nor would all foods produced from Bt corn require a label, either.

    First, A roundup-ready maize that does not have Bt does not have that particular compositional difference. Does having a different form of the EPSPS enzyme constitute the same kind of material different that a Bt gene does? How about a transgenic plant with an empty construct with no genes in it (and thus the only difference is the piece of inert DNA introduced)? Ignoring the issue I outlined above about how the difference was generated, each of these cases constitute unique differences – however – Doug is not talking about labeling what exactly those differences are, but instead, the technique used to generate them. In logical terms, he is equivocating the difference in composition with the different method being used. In other words, Doug is trying to pull a fast one.

    Secondly, if the presence of the Bt toxin itself constitutes a material fact that would trigger labeling, then what about something like high-fructose corn syrup, (or beet sugar) in which the refining process is so thorough that the compositional differences present in the plant are eliminated in the final food? Again, if the focus is on the compositional difference due to the presence of Bt, then there would be no reason to label GE-derived corn syrup or sugar, vegetable oils, etc.

    So all equivocation aside, if the individual differences caused by specific transgenes in different varieties of corn, soy, or canola are reason for labeling, logically, different labels would be required for each transgene. There is no justification given for why they would all be given the same label, if they are materially different from non-GE crops, and therefore materially different from each other. This is why they FDA rightly said 19 years ago that “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way”.

    Finally on this topic, Doug brings up the ironic nature of a difference being necessary for patents, but not sufficient for a label on the food. Patents of varying types have already been going on with plant varieties before genetic engineering, since 1930 in fact, and it now seems that utility patents can and are being used in non-GE plant breeding. If the presence of a patent suggests a big enough difference to require a label, then it stands to reason that every patented plant variety must be labeled in food products. I plan to write a more thorough analysis of the patent-label argument in the future as there has been considerable interest in the topic amongst readers of our blog, Biofortified.org, but in short, the philosophy underpinning each one is different and not comparable.

    Since I have already commented quite a bit on the issue of what constitutes a material fact, I’ll only lightly comment on the other arguments presented. The “Just Label It” campaign obscures the costs involved in segregating, testing, and labeling GE and non-GE commodities. It is not a simple matter of just adding some letters to a box. If labels were mandated, then in order to legally not mislead customers about the GE/non-GE status, testing would be required at several stages in the process, and different labels would be needed for every time you use a different, segregated batch of corn, soy, etc. Just labeling all corn and soy as GE even when some are not would be just as misleading.

    On the issue of safety, I want to point out that Doug is misrepresenting the Brazil Nut gene example by describing its addition with the adverb, “unwittingly”. They knew that brazil nuts were allergenic, and they were experimenting with a seed storage protein, a class of proteins that is very commonly allergenic because of their large size. Therefore, checking that the protein was itself allergenic or not was a reasonable and essential part of the process, and as a result, they discovered that that particular protein was one of the major allergens in brazil nuts. There was nothing unwitting about the process. Because of the source and the type of protein, this is not a representative example of genetic engineering. Regardless, because a few are concerned with safety does not itself make GE foods a safety issue. If any GE food was a safety issue, it would (according the the FDA) require a label already. And it should go without saying that there is a substantial body of research on the safety of GE crops, the list we maintain at Biofortified.org has over 300 peer-reviewed studies. The best evidence presented in the petition was the flawed Aris study from this year that did not take into account that the test they used does not work to detect Bt in blood. (This is according to previous peer-reviewed research.)

    With regard to popular support for labeling, there have been several studies on labeling attitudes, which have concluded that there is a desire for more information amongst consumers. There is also a desire to have hybrid crops labeled, and a significant desire to have crops grown with pesticides labeled. But when you add the cost of labeling to the question, you come out with a different result. Most people do not want to spend more money for these labels, instead a small segment of the population is willing to pay for it – precisely the same niche market that non-gmo labeled products are trying to reach. There is a much stronger argument in favor of negative labeling for those consumers that wish to avoid GE foods (and fiber), whose reasons venture outside of food composition and safety reasons, and often fall on politics, socio-economics, and other aspects of food philosophy. These are not enough to justify mandatory labeling, so the safety argument is used in its place.

    Labeling is a poltical issue, and I am often astounded by how far people go with their politics to absurdity. In the GE labeling petition filed by the CFS, also Doug’s former employer, the “GENETICALLY ENGINEERED” label is supposed to be twice the size of all other ingredient labeling and in bold typeface. That is a silly prominence designed to make it more dominant than the actual food content. It is also simply hilarious that one of the petitioners, Stonyfield, is pushing for GE labeling while not labeling its yogurt cups that it admits have been derived from GE corn. It is appropriate to question the financial motivations of the segment of the food industry that is petitioning to try to brand its competition with “UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT NOTICE: THIS PRODUCT WAS PRODUCED USING GENETIC ENGINEERING” just as much as it is appropriate to question why the GE industry fights such labels. Funny how there is no mention in this post that these labeling campaigns are in fact, food industry-backed campaigns and petitions. The proposed labeling requirements are intended to cause Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) when consumers are about to purchase food from the petitioners’ competition.

    As for my own views, I think it comes down to the relative benefits and drawbacks, a utilitarian approach. If, for example, there was a way to use labels to help educate consumers who have few opportunities to learn about GE crops, that would be an argument in its favor in my opinion. But blanket GE labels that sound like Surgeon General warnings do not educate people about it. Segregation and testing is an added cost that is a drawback, which is why it is more reasonable to have that cost shouldered by those for whom it actually matters. But also note – there is no added costs of segregation for varieties that are already being segregated for identity preservation. A soybean that produces Omega-3s would not have an additional cost of labeling. It is also nutritionally different. There are a lot of interesting examples out there when you think about it outside the political status quo.

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Thanks Karl, for bringing up some good discussion points.

      There are several places where Karl incorrectly claims that I mischaracterize the facts, so let me address those points first.

      Karl correctly writes that FDA’s definition of “material” includes nutritional changes in GE crops, but incorrectly claims that I do not include that point in my characterization of FDA’s definition of material. That’s because he incorrectly describes what I wrote. I included substantial equivalence as part of my description of FDA’s definition of “material.” A GE food that differs in nutritional content would not be substantially equivalent, and so my description does include nutritional changes in GE food.

      Karl also claims that I misrepresent the situation with the transfer of the Brazil nut allergen into soybeans because I called that transfer unwitting. Unwitting means without knowledge, and I am correct that the scientists did not know the Brazil nut gene was an allergen. Frankly, if they did, they probably would not have transferred it. Karl is correct that it is not a typical example, but I brought it up only to demonstrate that GE can transfer clearly harmful genes into foods.

      (Karl is wrong, I believe, about large proteins being predictive of allergenicity. That is not a criterion in any assessment of allergenicity by any agency that I am aware of, for example the assessment recommended by FAO/WHO in 2003, or the protocols used by EPA. Protein abundance was at one time one of the criteria for presumptive allergens (along with resistance to digestion and DNA sequence matching), but was dropped due to contrary examples.)

      But the bigger problem with possible GE allergens is that there are no clear biochemical characteristics that can distinguish allergens from non-allergens, no good animal tests that can predict allergenicity in humans so far, and the tests that are typically used now are not robust, as demonstrated by FDA’s own T.J. Fu, and others, in several published studies.

      When the engineered gene comes from an organism that was not previously in the food supply (e.g. many bacteria, fungi, or non-food plants), these very imperfect tests are relied upon to detect whether the GE foods may be allergenic. In the case of genes from foods, like Brazil nuts, there are better and more reliable tests for allergens (based on immune serum from those allergic to the food). Most proteins in our foods are not allergens, so in terms of probability, one might predict that most new GE proteins would likewise not be allergens either, tests aside. People can decide for themselves if they are comfortable with that, but cannot easily do so without labels.

      Karl argues that I am inconsistent in suggesting that there is a difference between pest resistance genes, for example, from breeding vs. pest resistance genes from GE. But this is not my assessment alone. The study I linked from the National Academy of Science (in 2000) confirmed that GE should be regulated, and did not similarly suggest that other types of breeding should be, although it recognized that breeding can on rare occasions have harmful results. That does not mean that all GE pest resistance genes or other engineered genes are harmful. In my opinion, many will not be, and I disagree with those opposed to GE who believe that the process is inherently harmful (that all or most engineered genes will be harmful). But that leaves open the question of whether the regulatory agencies have in place an adequate process to detect harmful applications of GE.

      Much of Karl’s argument comes down to his assertion that risks from some other food products may be as high or higher than for GE. FDA has some discretion about when it requires labels based on how it defines material change in foods. It could require labels for conventionally bred foods, but has classified them as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), based on our long history with those foods, which generally makes sense to me. Similarly, EPA has the legal authority to regulate pest protection traits from conventional breeding, but has chosen not to, because of our long safe history with those traits, the kind Karl mentions. EPA rightly regulates GE pest protectants in part because we do not have that long history with GE. Whether some more exotic breeding processes should also be classified as GRAS is another question.

      The problem for me, and many others (including many other scientists) is that FDA also classifies GE as GRAS, and so requires no specific safety tests, and leaves the process largely in the hands of the regulated industry—a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house.

      Karl can cite his database on GE and food safety (I have not seen it so cannot comment on it specifically, but the many peer-reviewed studies that I have read do not settle the question of the general safety of GE as a technology. This is in part because each new gene and its product(s) have their own unique risks that are not necessarily addressed by previous studies). But clearly other scientists, such as those on several National Academies reports, disagree with Karl’s assessment. So with this uncertainty within the science community, I do not fault consumers for wanting to opt out of buying GE foods by having them labeled.

      I agree with Karl that some (many) GE foods will be safe, and harmful GE foods would not be allowed. So if the basis of GE labeling was safety, AND IF WE COULD TRUST OUR REGULATORY SYSTEM, then there would be no need to label. The problem with this argument is that it ignores what many consider to be an inadequate regulatory system. So this is not a matter of equivocation, as Karl puts it, but rather a difference of opinion about whether we can be confident that possible harmful GE foods will in fact be kept off the market.

      But beyond safety, FDA appears to have broad statutory discretion in defining material change in food. Karl and his cohort want to rely only on science (and specifically their interpretation of complex and unsettled risk science), ignoring the cultural or sociopolitical considerations and other important factors that go into choosing the food we eat.This technocratic perspective leaves out many other aspects of humanity that most would agree are extremely important and relevant to food.

      This leads to Karl’s points about surveys. He rightly mentions than many have said that they would like to have information on labels about pesticide content, and confusion by many about other agricultural processes. Karl mentions hybrids, and a Center for Science in the Public Interest survey from around 2001 showed that about 40 percent of respondents wanted cross-bred foods to be labeled—a process of conventional breeding, not GE. This probably, and not surprisingly, reflects a lack of understanding by the public about agricultural terminology. If cross breeding was explained to be the kind of breeding that farmers, and more recently crop breeders, have been doing for millennia, does anyone really think that 40 percent of consumers would want it labeled? But to the contrary, GE cannot be described as the way we have been producing crops over the centuries, so I doubt that the 60 to 70 percent that wanted labeling for GE in the CSPI survey would change much. And surveys since then consistently show much higher consumer desire for mandatory GE labeling—more like 90 percent.

      We can quibble about what percent strongly favor GE labeling, and how much they would be willing to pay for it. To me this is equivocating. Most people consistently say they want GE labeling, which is the more important point. And we can argue about legalisms till the cows come home. The current laws seem to allow FDA to require what most people say they want.

      As for details like whether to label highly refined products like high fructose corn syrup that have very low GE content, how to distinguish different genes (how about a web site for those that are interested), I have confidence that they could be worked out. Similarly, wording and font size for GE content can be neutral, as with other ingredients. Again, these are mere details that can be resolved.

      But what is especially revealing to me is how adamantly and tenaciously some supporters of GE fight to keep people from learning what they want to know about important products that they buy and consume. Is it really a simple rational exercise? Is there really any high moral principle in keeping foods from being labeled for GE content? Call me suspicious, but I doubt it. It seems to me that these supporters are really worried that some consumers will use their free market rights to reject GE foods. If GE were truly valuable to consumers, as are products of other new technologies such as computers and smart phones, there would be no question of rejection. But since current GE foods provide no tangible or unique benefits to consumers, why should they support these foods?

      Finally, I want to comment on Karl’s insinuation that the push to label GE foods is merely a stealthy campaign of the organic food industry, and the implicit suggestion that those of us that support it are somehow doing the bidding of the food industry. UCS takes no industry money. Period. That is certainly also true of many others who support labeling. We come to our conclusions based on our analysis—there are no industry incentives for us to do so. And while many scientists strongly support GE based on conviction, there are also many others that are at least in part on the GE industry payroll, so I find it ironic that Karl makes this cheap accusation.

      • Thanks, Doug, for responding to my comments, and I’ll offer up some further comments below, but first I want to apologize for implying that you are benefiting financially by advocating labeling of GE foods – that was not my intention. I merely wanted to point out the close connection between yourself and the organization that submitted the petition for those who did not know. I know the UCS is largely based on member donations, followed by foundations, however your statement that it does not accept industry money “period” is incorrect. According to the 2010 Annual Report, money was accepted from Pfizer in the form of a matching gift – that does count as industry. BTW, I do not think the views and direction of the UCS are influenced by such donations.

        Doubtless thinking that I characterized you as being motivated by industry money, you misrepresented me saying that the labeling campaigns are “merely a stealthy campaign of the organic food industry.” I did not say that. I said that it is important to consider the financial motivations of each side of a political issue. You suggested that the GE industry seems afraid that people would not want to choose to buy a GE-labeled product. I suggest that the organic and non-GE industry wants to make people afraid to buy that product. Neither side is really interested in helping people to learn and understand the product. A “stealthy” campaign? I don’t know where you get this idea – I’m willing to accept it as a rhetorical flourish. It strains the imagination that anyone would consider a campaign so heavily sprinkled with corporate ads, banners, and employees marching from NY to D.C. in company T-shirts is a “stealthy” campaign. Let alone think that I think it is a stealthy campaign.
        Now that you mention it, we did contact an organizer of the Non-GMO Project’s Right2Know March to ask about corporate money – and they said there were “no corps in sight” despite posting a photo online a mere hour before with a big corporate banner for Rapunzel and several others! Although they may have a main goal of advocating for something they believe in, their secondary goal of advertising must not be overlooked.
        As for you comment about “adamantly and tenaciously” fighting to keep people from knowing what they are eating – I dearly hope you are not talking about me, because that is the exact opposite of why I blog about GE and other aspects of plant genetics – because I want people to know about and discuss these things. I have also stated here and elsewhere that I am not an opponent of GE labeling per se, and pointed out how using it to educate people about it is an argument in its favor. But these labeling schemes are not intended to educate.
        I want to point out the many kinds of weird assumptions that you seem to make about me. Apparently I’m now a “technocrat,” and along with my “cohorts” I’m ignoring the cultural and sociopolitical aspects of food? Do you even read our blog?
        I hope you do agree that the large letters demanded in the CFS petition are excessive. I hope you might be able to convince your friends (can I make you sound sneaky by calling them “cohorts” too?) at the CFS that they are going over the top with that kind of labeling scheme. The problem with political extremes is the seldom think about how to convince people with differing views about their position to reach a compromise, and each instance it gets louder and more extreme. I suggested one avenue that could be pursued for labeling at the bottom of my comment, which has been so far overlooked. You have to make Monsanto want to label a GE crop – and you must know that this current political strategy won’t make them want to any more. But other strategies might.
        On educating, you suggest that people wanting to label cross-bred crops as a result of a lack of knowledge about how breeding has been used, and I forward the argument that the same goes for genetic engineering. You are interpreting it only in terms of what we’ve been doing for millennia, which is not actually knowledge about the technique, but its history. Mutagenesis, induced polyploidy, tissue culture, and genetic engineering have not been practices for millennia – so I struggle to see how this makes a key difference when it comes to education or labels.
        Your suggestion of a website that would give specific details about GE crops is interesting, but has two problems. First, it does nothing to help someone in the store to understand whether it is a GE crop they feel comfortable with, or one that they do not. Second, it begs the question about why people just don’t go to a website to learn about it instead. If you are confident that information presented in this fashion would satisfy this goal, then why not just put that info on the web? There are other possibilities, such as making it possible for UPCs to be scanned by an application on people’s smartphones that could indicate what was used, but this presents other problems such as the traceability of specific batches of corn, soy, cottonseed oil, etc, as well as accessibility issues. There are also non-GE applications already made, supported by industry ads. You say you are confident that issues such as GE-derived sugar and oils could be ‘worked out’ – well what a better place to work them out than on a blog post about labeling where this issue was brought up! As Frank N. Foode would say, I’m all ears.
        You mentioned but skipped over opining on whether pesticide use should be labeled, and I think the explanation of why you exclude any pest protection genes used by conventional breeding is very unsatisfying. Essentially, you are saying that if we’ve bred genes A, B, and C safely, then genes D, E, F, G, etc must also be safe and no scrutiny is required. That’s the same thing the GE industry says crudely about current GE traits. And by that logic, using GE to transfer genes currently already in the same species is OK. Also, my point about the actual compositional difference being exchanged for the method used to cause that difference was ignored in favor of accusing me of equivocating. Equivocation is treating things as if they are the same thing – you considered the trait and the method to be the same thing in your labeling justification (whatever you want to call it – it is still a fallacious argument). I did not consider desire for labeling and willingness to pay for that labeling to be the same thing, in fact I delineated between them! 🙂
        I’m still learning about allergenicity, and my understanding at the time I read about the Brazil nut gene was that size was suggestive of potential allergenicity because it could better survive digestion. If I remember correctly, the digestibility issue was also one of the criteria for why Cry9C (Starlink) was not approved for human consumption and only for animal feed. I haven’t yet examined allergenicity in depth, there are several things I am curious about such as endogenous variation for glycosylation, as well as variation for allergenicity within crop species. I only recently learned that there’s variation for allergenicity in apples. Understanding the plant breeding context for this issue is essential for understanding the same categories of risk of GE, in my view. Talking about it outside this context gives no frame of reference for risk assessment.
        Let me end by bringing it back to the first thing you said in your response to me. I took a closer look at your statement and I think I know where my confusion came from. When you said:

        FDA defined “material” as meaning that a consumer could not tell the difference between the GE and non-GE version, that it was essentially the same (substantially equivalent in FDA’s parlance) and safe.

        I understood the substantially equivalent and safe part as a further explanation of the consumer part. This is because of the misplaced ‘that’ after the comma (or corresponding missing ‘that’ after the parentheses which would make the grammar unambiguous) When I read that in combination with the CFS petition that stated,

        “FDA is still using 19th century ideas to regulate 21st century foods, focusing only on traits that consumers can detect with their senses.”

        I therefore thought that you were saying the same thing with your sentence. I stand corrected, and the CFS should be notified that they are misrepresenting the FDA in their petition. Glad we got that resolved. Good communication is essential!
        I look forward to your response,

      • A quick note, in my response, I inserted blockquotes around quotes at the bottom. It looks like this doesn’t show up in the formatting, so in the future I’ll just add italics.

  • Walter

    Why all the fuss and fear over modern food technology? Silly to label everything with minutia to assuage a minority’s hypochondiac angst. Simply create a certifed GM-free label, just like certifed organic. Regulate and enforce it for the benefit of those who would otherwise be killed dead by GM foods. That’s the only credible approach to avoiding catatrophe for the genetically handicapped few who cannot eat food without swooning anxiety attacks.

  • Just as some people are allergic to peanuts, I am allergic to GM foods. Six years ago I was very sick. But then I found out about GM foods and avoided them. Six months later, my doctor took me off the medications used to counter the effects of GM foods. I had recovered. I told my dad and he recovered. Unfortunately, I found out too late to save my oldest son. Bt toxin is toxic. It is a poison. The combination of Bt-toxin and glyphosate can often lead to a damaged immune system.

    • I am sorry to hear that you have been having food problems. My dad is wheat-gluten intolerant, and I am lactose intolerant. However, I doubt that you are actually allergic to GE foods. It is much more likely that you were allergic to something else in the foods you stopped eating. You could have a soy allergy, or a less-common corn allergy, or perhaps it was to something else that was in the same foods. But the likelihood of being allergic to one or two well-tested new proteins in your food versus the many thousands that vary from one to the next is very small. If you are in fact allergic to something engineered into the food, then you should go for a double-blind food challenge to determine this. I explain more in my post, The Inadequacy of Anecdotes: http://www.biofortified.org/2009/04/the-inadequacy-of-anecdotes/
      If it turns out that you are allergic to something engineered into the food, you would be instantly famous. If not, then you might accidentally eat something you are allergic to because you are avoiding GE foods and not that specific food.

  • Donald R. Davis

    Jacob worries about wasting “precious resources.” The resources are minimal in the context of our right to know. “Genetically engineered foods are required to be labeled in the 15 European Union nations, Russia, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries around the world.”
    –Statement from Food Democracy Now Petition to the FDA and White House,

  • Jacob

    An obtuse approach to food labeling being advocated here.

    Instead of wastefully labeling the preponderance of modern technologically advanced foods with statements of the obvious, why not label the handful of specialty foods that do not contain GE ingredients? Much more sensible, efficient approach that supports a premum marketing niche, too.

    Most intelligent consumers enjoy modern foods without undue worry. Let the worry warts label their special products as “has none” for everyone’s supposed benefit. Why waste precious resources printing labels and expanding food packaging that only fills our landfills and trashes our environment?

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Thanks for your comment. You raise some good points.

      First, there does not have to be any significant added expense to including GE on ingredient labels. Companies frequently revise labels for a lot of reasons. If adding information about GE content was made part of normal label revisions, the extra costs for including GE would be minimal.

      If ingredients that are engineered were identified with an asterisk, with a line below the label explaining simply that this ingredient was genetically engineered, this would not require much additional space. To suggest that these adjustments would add to the volume of landfills is not credible.

      As my post says, there are many valid reasons why consumers want to know what is in their foods–safety being one of them. I bet that you want all kinds of information about products that you buy that have nothing to do with risk. And as a relatively new technology, it does not seem unreasonable for some to want to avoid eating these foods until they are convinced that they are safe. To suggest that the 90 plus percent of consumers that consistently say they want these foods labeled are “worry warts” gives your fellow citizens little credit.

      There are already efforts to voluntarily label foods that do not contain GE content, as you suggest to do. The problem with voluntary efforts is that they are haphazard and incomplete, so consumers can have no confidence that the foods they eat have been assessed in this way.

      Most mainstream food companies have been unwilling to label for the lack of GE content, so this approach leaves consumers largely in the dark.

      There would be legitimate challenges to labeling for GE efficiently and at minimal cost. For example, how much GE content would be needed to require a label? Would it need to be tested (which would add cost) or could there simply be a presumption of GE content based on production methods, which would require no cost(e.g. the way corn is harvested, stored and shipped ensures GE content in all typical corn)?

      These are the usual technical issues that always arise in virtually any enterprise, and could be addressed in reasonable ways.

  • Beverly Mcintyre

    Informative post — Thanks much!