Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Giving the FDA Control Over Labeling

The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food wants to take the issue of whether to label GMO products and hand it to the FDA.

The biggest surprise? I might be okay with that. (No, really, hear me out.)

The Coalition is made up of 31 different industry groups, including: American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, Biotechnology Industry Organization, National Grain & Feed Association, National Corn Growers Association, and the U.S. Beet Sugar Association.

Now, you have to admit, that's a pretty impressive and influential list. (You can see the rest of it here.)

The goal of the organization is to prohibit all 50 states from enacting a patchwork of different labeling laws that would not only confuse consumers, but also increase the overall cost of production. If you're producing an end product that's sold nationally, you definitely don't want to create different packaging to comply with all 50 states' laws.

And the Coalition also understands that biotechnology is an important tool for agriculture:
  • Every credible U.S. and international food safety authority that has studied GMO crops has found that they are safe and that there are no health effects associated with their use. In fact, Italian scientists recently analyzed nearly 1800 scientific studies on GMOs, and found overwhelming scientific consensus that there are no harmful effects from GMO consumption.
  • GMO crops use less water, fewer pesticides and reduce the cost of crops by 15-30 percent.
  • One in eight people among the world’s growing population of 7 billion do not have enough to eat. Safe and effective methods of food production, like crops produced through GM technology, can help us feed the world, including those that suffer from hunger and malnutrition in developing nations.
  • The global population is expected to rise to more than 9 billion by 2050 and we will need 70% more agricultural production to meet the challenge. And population growth over the next 35 years will take place during a time of greater climate volatility, placing new and increased pressure on the world’s farmers. GMO crops are instrumental to our ability to keep pace with a growing global population and do so sustainably.
So, what's the point?

The organization believes that handing the labeling issue over to the FDA will:
  • Eliminate Confusion: Remove the confusion and uncertainty of a 50 state patchwork of GMO safety and labeling laws and affirm the FDA as the nation’s authority for the use and labeling of genetically modified food ingredients.
  • Advance Food Safety: Require the FDA to conduct a safety review of all new GMO traits before they are introduced into commerce. FDA will be empowered to mandate the labeling of GMO food ingredients if the agency determines there is a health, safety or nutrition issue with GMO technology.
  • Inform Consumers: The FDA will establish federal standards for companies that want to voluntarily label their product for the absence-of or presence-of GMO food ingredients so that consumers clearly understand their choices in the marketplace.
  • Provide Consistency: The FDA will define the term “natural” for its use on food and beverage products so that food and beverage companies and consumers have a consistent legal framework that will guide food labels and inform consumer choice.
Although I believe labeling GMOs is a bad idea, I'm not entirely opposed to this particular idea.

As it currently stands, the USDA oversees the process of "deregulating" any new biotech product so it can be produced commercially. The EPA gets involved under specific circumstances. The FDA is only involved for voluntary guidance. The proposition by the Coalition would put the FDA front and center -- they would be the nation's leading governmental department for reviewing the safety and regulating the biotech industry. 

It also isn't clear that there would actually be any labeling. According to the group's position, the FDA "will be empowered to mandate the labeling of GMO food ingredients if the agency determines there is a health, safety, or nutrition issue with GMO technology." Currently, there is no scientific evidence showing that the commercially-grown biotech products have any of those issues. Therefore, no label should be required. However, in cases where there might be something more specific -- say, a peanut gene that may cause an allergic reaction -- the FDA can control the labeling. Or, if there was a scientific study, then the FDA could consider it.

Certainly, putting this issue in the hands of the FDA, a central government authority, is a whole heck of a lot smarter than allowing each individual state to decide for themselves. And our friends at the FDA tend to take their cues from science, rather than emotion. 

But we should be cautious, because the new Food Safety and Modernization Act, which has yet to implement many of the fresh vegetable rules because they're (quite frankly) a nightmare, is also under the direction of the FDA. So, we know the FDA isn't completely free from influence by emotion. 

And let's not forget that implementing legislation, even in Congress, will be a furor of emotion with the anti-GMO activists get involved. If you think they're going to discuss this calmly and rationally, you're just as crazy as they are. There would definitely be fringe elements attempting to radicalize the bill.

However, if we have to choose between having a patchwork of state laws or having one uniform system throughout the country, I'll take the latter. The FDA obviously is more rational than a lot of the anti-GMO activists. As long as the proposed legislation stays within the parameters of the outline set out above, I might be okay with that. 


  1. Thanks for helping the non-gmo groups out! The more there is of "putting up walls", the harder it is to sell our pro-stance.

    1. I'm sure this was a "hit and run" comment, but I would love an explanation. The biggest problem GMOs have right now is that we have all these radicals out there spreading a bunch of baloney about them. My goal is, and always has been, to educate people about the safety and importance of biotechnology. I fail to see how that is "putting up walls."

  2. 90% of people polled are in favor of labeling GMOs, just label it and move on. Let people decide if they want to buy it or not. Each state acting independently is obviously less efficient than the federal government requiring it but they're not doing that. Not to mention the FDA is a revolving door between the big industry and the government, hardly a non-bias group of people. This isn't about science it's about democracy and we've seen the industry lie and put an enormous amount of money into anti-labeling. Initially they said the mandate would cost too much to change all the labels, meanwhile millions upon millions of dollars later....

    Also, GMO is not natural. As per Merriam-Webster

    : existing in nature and not made or caused by people : coming from nature

    : not having any extra substances or chemicals added : not containing anything artificial

    : usual or expected

    1. 90% of people are NOT in favor of labeling GMOs. Saying something doesn't make it true. When the labeling issue has been up for a vote -- which happened in both California and Washington (not exactly two conservative states)-- it was soundly defeated.

      The government doesn't have to be "non-baised" -- they need to be smart. The people in the biotech field are EXPERTS in their field. The FDA reviews a whole heck of a lot of scientific data. They need to also be EXPERTS, so of course there is going to be overlap.

      And I'm not really what your point is regarding "natural." Natural, although defined in the dictionary, has taken a whole distorted persona and cult following of its own that is absurd.

  3. Great article! You have provided nice reasoning for a federal approach to resolving this issue. Concerning "natural," I don't think our society truly want to be totally natural. Before the modernization of agriculture societies had to routinely deal with food shortages. This is no longer the case in the US because of the application of scientific principles to agriculture.

    Also, diseases would be considered natural using the definition above. I do not know of anyone who believes we should just accept diseases as they are and avoid scientific approaches to cure them. When my son gets an ear infection, it is nice to get an antibiotic (a type of pesticide) to cure that "natural" phenomenon.