Truthiness and Fairness on GMO Labels at FDA

Today the FDA is meeting to discuss labeling of genetically engineered (GMO) salmon. Assuming that the agency makes the experimental fish the first GMO animal approved for human consumption, FDA’s proposal suggests that no labels will be required to let consumers know when they are buying the GMO fish.

What’s worse, some suspect that the agency will disallow “no GMO” labeling of salmon from fisherman or fish farms that reject the GMO variety. They point to FDA’s history of attacking food makers for certain No-GMO labels. Others  say that it’s “only fair” that companies abide by FDA’s policy and not use “sloppy” or misleading labels.

But a brief look at FDA’s history on GMO labeling shows that there’s nothing “fair” about the agency’s policy.

In the early 1990’s, when Monsanto was bringing its GMO hormone rBGH to market, the company needed to insure that consumers were kept in the dark about the use of the drug. Monsanto knew that consumers would never agree to be guinea pigs by willingly buying milk from cows injected with the GMO drug, and they were confident that their buddies at FDA would never require GMO labeling.

So Monsanto’s key concern was about the many dairies who rejected the use of rBGH, and who wanted to be sure that their customers knew that their products remained free of the untested hormone.

Luckily for them (!), Monsanto had a friend at FDA: Michael Taylor, a lawyer who had worked on government relations when he worked at Monsanto’s law firm, was in charge of GMO labeling policy at FDA. Taylor wrote the agency’s first policy on GMO food labels, the policy for milk produced with – or without – rBGH.

The policy said: producers don’t need to label if they use rBGH. More to the point, it said that producers who refused to use the drug could not label their milk as “rBGH-free.” That, FDA said, would be “truthful but misleading,”

Taylor figured that, since FDA has found GMO foods to be “substantially equivalent” to their natural counterparts, then labeling “GMO-free” foods would be true, but would imply a difference that does not exist, and thus would be misleading.

Never mind that studies showed that cows treated with rBGH require greater use of antibiotics and thus the milk has higher somatic cell counts (ie, pus in the milk-yum!). Or that milk from injected cows have higher levels of a hormone, IGF-1, that’s been linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, and other cancers and health problems.

No, these facts didn’t deter FDA, or stop them from taking Taylor’s twisted logic and applying it when the agency developed its policy on GMO food labels.

So is it “fair” that FDA allows GMO foods to go unlabeled, based on the notion that they are somehow “equivalent” to natural foods? In fact, virtually every GMO crop on the market contains genes that have never before been part of the human diet. And most of them are engineered with antibiotic resistance genes that may contribute to the overall problem of antibiotic resistance in humans, already a major national health problem. A large percentage of GMO crops are specifically altered so that a pesticide to which humans have never before been exposed is now an everyday part of our diets.

Yet despite these and other dramatic changes in our food that may result from GMO animals, FDA refuses to require GMO labeling (unlike Europe, Japan, Russia, China and dozens of other countries where labels are required).

But the agency has cracked down on truthful labels that responsible, natural food producers have used to inform consumers that their products are and always have been non-GMO foods. For example, FDA says that “no GMO” or a “GMO” with a red cross through it is misleading because it implies that something is wrong with GMO food.

As a New York Times report (on rBGH labels) notes, so what? If the label is true, then consumers can decide if they feel that one product is more or less appropriate for their family. That’s what labeling is for.

FDA also says the terms “genetically modified organism” or “GMO” are too confusing for poor, stupid American consumers, since many foods are “modified” and foods are not “organisms.”

Never mind that “GMO” is a term widely used in the American media, by American farmers, and throughout the American food industry.

In defending its attack on truthful food labels, FDA said that its “research” showed that consumers prefer labels with spelled-out words, like “biotechnology” or “genetically engineered.”

This is odd, since FDA originally covered-up that “research,” which actually showed that consumers were “outraged” to learn that the agency had allowed GMO foods on the market without requiring labeling. Turns out that the agency’s “research” only came to light after a consumer group found it through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Should companies be allowed to label their avocados, bananas, or eggs as “non-GMO,” even when there are no GMO versions of those foods on the market? No, that would be misleading.

But what’s fair about FDA threatening natural and organic food companies who display “no GMO” labels, when these companies have been forced to go to great lengths, and pay burdensome premiums, just to avoid Monsanto’s (or Aqua Bounty’s) genetic experiments and let consumers know that they’re producing the same, natural foods they always have?

Nothing. But no one ever said that FDA and the biotech industry play fair.

(See our take on this week’s FDA meeting on the safety of GMO salmon, GMO Salmon and the Banality of Corruption at FDA)

Comments Closed

4 Comments

  1. Mary Brune
    Posted September 21, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I love how the argument for this is that what’s being injected to the salmon is “natural” and therefore shouldn’t cause any problems. Lead’s natural, too. So is mercury.

  2. charlie pizarro
    Posted September 21, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I used to see the RBGH-free dairy label everywhere, but it always came with a footnote that said:

    studies show no difference between milk produced with RBGH and milk produced without RBGH.

    was this a compromise?

  3. Posted September 23, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    This is important stuff, and I hope everyone recognizes that getting it right is not easy.

    I’m actually against generally *requiring* GM labelling, and I’m in favour of voluntary labelling. But I think this requires that the FDA set clear and fair rules for how companies that want to label can do so. If it becomes effectively impossible for companies to label their foods as free of genetic manipulation, then free commerce is being stifled.

    The problem is that the FDA’s job is (among other things) to require that labels be truthful and not misleading. Technically, it *is* slightly misleading to use the term “GMO-Free”, but it might on balance be best to allow it. I think what would be ideal is if agreement could be reached on a single designation — something parallel to “Organic” — that would be clear and consistent and that people would generally understand.

    Chris MacDonald,
    Food-Ethics.com

  4. Charles Margulis
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment Chris. I think it’s clear from the post that FDA’s concern in developing its labeling policy had nothing to do with “getting it right,” and everything to do with bending reality to fit the biotech industry’s needs. It would be great if FDA had set “clear and fair” rules, but they didn’t. They set rules that deny consumers the right to know what’s in their food (by refusing to require labeling of GMO food), and that handcuffs responsible companies who simply want to inform consumers that their natural food hasn’t changed.
    FDA hasn’t only gone after “GMO-free” labels – the agency doesn’t like any use of the term GMO, or genetically “modified” or altered or any of a number of other unscientific, pro-biotech complaints about non-GMO labeling. Meanwhile, the USDA refuses to take any action to protect food companies from GMO contamination. Together, these regulatory failures have created a massive problem (and created significant costs) for farmers and natural and organic food producers, and left consumers out of luck.

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