Truth in GM Food Labeling

After two decades of the unregulated production and marketing of genetically modified food, Congress is now considering a law that would introduce the labeling of GM products.

At first glance, the average person — whose gut instinct is to start worrying when teams of experts in white smocks tell him there’s nothing to worry about — welcomes the idea of labeling foods, so that even if there is no guarantee of safety, at least he can be minimally informed as to risk.

But upon closer examination, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 introduced earlier this month by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) may not be a reason to stop worrying. On the contrary.

What consumers want, presumably, is a legislative scheme that would protect them from the potential harm of biotechnical innovation in their diet. But it is debatable whether Pompeo’s proposal would do that, since it would make such labeling voluntary, not mandatory. Food companies who wish to could declare on their labels, in accordance with federal standards, that the product contains no genetically modified ingredients. Food companies who wish to could go on loading their products with genetically modified ingredients without telling the customer anything about it.

Very little would change. The fact is, food makers can list genetically modified ingredients on their labels right now, without a new law. There’s nothing stopping them — except, of course, the knowledge that it would drive down sales, because people don’t want GM foods.

However, critics of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 allege that it is itself guilty of being mislabeled. They say it is not as benign or reassuring as it purports to be; that it would, in fact, change the status quo, though not in the direction of less GM or better-policed GM. Instead, it is designed to kill the prospects for mandatory legislation that would force companies to reveal what they’re putting in our food.

Currently, about 20 states are looking at labeling laws that would be to some extent or other mandatory. The Act is aimed at heading off such legislation and making it harder for the FDA to come up with a labeling solution that would require disclosures of health and safety concerns.

This is not mind-reading. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to know what the 20 co-sponsors — 12 Republicans and eight Democrats — desire in their heart of hearts. One merely needs to glance over at the folks backing this bill to realize that what it amounts to is an attempt to modify the legislative environment in such a way as to favor the GM industry.

Industry backers have already spent millions of dollars in various statewide campaigns to block mandatory labeling laws. The congressional bill is an effort to block all of those efforts in a single stroke, charged Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

Pompeo’s bill has a good chance of passage in the House, and the Senate is talking about something along the same lines. The massive lobbying effort driving it forward is a flashing red light to anyone concerned about genetically modified food.

The environmental groups are supporting an alternative bill that would actually address the concerns of the consumer. The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and in the House by Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). It requires labels for all foods using genetically engineered ingredients and prohibits manufacturers from labeling genetically modified foods as natural.

Both bills must still go through the process of debate and amendment in the House and Senate before being voted on. But it is surely in the public interest to know that an alternative proposal exists, and who is lobbying for what.

There is a broader issue at stake here, as well. Proponents of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 argue that even this is unnecessary. They point to the fact that most scientists agree that genetically modified foods have proved themselves safe in the commonly accepted sense of the term. Some 88 percent of scientists polled by the Pew Research Center in January said that GM foods are safe to eat. In over two decades, they note, these biotechnically manipulated foods have caused no harm. The National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization have concluded that GM food is no riskier than other food.

They blame the current move toward labeling on a general suspicion of corporations and scientists, and claim that the dangers of GM are bogus.

Indeed, there is such suspicion (especially when the scientists giving their endorsements are employed or funded by said corporations). Only 37 percent of the public shares their view about the safety of GM foods. The majority are skeptical.

Admittedly, the record of such foods has been good; the evidence appears to be preponderantly on the side of industry.

But you don’t have to be a knee-jerk environmentalist or a scientific know-nothing to be concerned about genetically modified foods. Twenty years is a short time when it comes to drawing conclusions about the safety of a technology. Sometimes the health effects do not show up until much later, and there are scientists — albeit a minority, since it’s not popular to say so — who make that point, too.