Just Label It

Edible Nation

Just Label It

By Naomi Starkman | Photo By Just Label It 0

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 25, 2012, and was updated on June 4, 2012.

In October 2011, the Just Label It campaign—a broad-based coalition of nearly 400 businesses and organizations dedicated to food safety and consumer rights—filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods in order to give consumers the right to know what is in our food. Since then, more than 550 consumer, healthcare, environmental and farming organizations, manufacturers, and retailers have joined the campaign, generating a record-breaking 1.2 million consumer comments to FDA in just 180 days.

GE food, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), 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, ruling that there is no “material” difference and, thus, do not require labeling. Today, after almost 20 years, this policy is still in effect.

“We are asking the FDA to change a decades-old and out-of-touch policy,” says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety and lead author of the petition. “We want the FDA to require labeling on foods intentionally produced using genetic engineering.”

Right now, the FDA is deciding whether to deregulate GE salmon and make it commercially available. According to the 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 salmon, the public will not know if what they are consuming has been genetically altered.

Polls show that consumers demand transparency in the foods they buy and overwhelmingly support labeling of GE food. According to a poll conducted by the Consumers Union, 95 percent of consumers believe GE foods should be labeled and 93 percent of the American public want the federal government to require mandatory labeling. 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 United States are from GE seeds, the safety of GE crops for human consumption has not been adequately assured. 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 only limited testing for allergenicity—despite the fact that some studies raise concerns that GE foods may pose an allergen risk.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield and a founder of the Just Label It campaign, says, “While the pros and cons of GE foods are debated, an entire generation is growing up consuming them. Until we have no doubt that GE crops are safe to eat, consumers should have a choice about whether we eat them. GE foods must be labeled. Consumers need to know.” Hirshberg recently published “Label It Now,” the first consumer guide to GE foods available from online booksellers. All proceeds of the e-book go to the Just Label It campaign.

The campaign also recently launched a new video by Food, Inc. filmmaker Robert Kenner that encourages consumers to fight for their right to know what is in their food. The video, Labels Matter, is the result of collaboration between the Just Label It campaign and Kenner’s new project, FixFood, a social media platform that aims to empower Americans to take immediate action to create a more sustainable and democratic food system.

The drumbeat for mandatory GE labeling is getting louder, as informed consumers are demanding the right to know what’s in their food. Also last October, the GMO Right2Know March, a two-week, 300-mile trek from Manhattan to the White House, took place. Federal legislation has been introduced requiring labeling of all GE foods. It took just five days for more than 25,000 people to sign the GMO labeling petition at the White House online petition site. In California, a GMO labeling referendum recently gathered the signatures needed to be on the statewide November 2012 ballot, landing GE labeling on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s urgent that we make our voices heard now, as the FDA is deciding whether to approve GE salmon and the USDA advances a proposal to deregulate corn engineered to be resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D, a major component in Agent Orange. Join in asking the FDA to allow consumers the right to know what’s in our food, as well as in contacting your state or federal representatives to voice your view. Until the FDA labels GE foods, the best option to avoid them is to buy USDA Certified Organic, as the federal organic standards strictly prohibit the use of GE ingredients. Other options include looking for Non-GMO Project Verified products and purchasing unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables, since many packaged foods contain GE ingredients.

Visit the Just Label It website or on Facebook and Twitter

Naomi Starkman Naomi Starkman is a founder and the editor-in-chief of Civil Eats, a Web site which promotes critical thought about sustainable agriculture and food systems. She is a food policy consultant to Consumers Union and others, and a founding board member and strategic advisor to both the Food & Environment Reporting Network and FixFood.

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