On Tuesday, NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show featured a discussion on whether or not the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) should require labels for genetically engineered (GE) foods. Stonyfield Farm President and Just Label It partner Gary Hirshberg joined New York Times’ science reporter Gardiner Harris along with Thomas Redick, an attorney for Global Environmental Ethics Counsel. Listen to an archived segment of the show here: Environmental Outlook: Labels for Genetically Modified Foods.
Currently about 90 percent of the U.S. soybean crop and almost 75 percent of U.S. corn is grown from GE seed, and it’s estimated that more than half the foods in grocery stores today contain ingredients that have been genetically engineered. 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” as anything that can be tasted, smelled, or experienced by other senses. The FDA determined that GE foods were “substantially equivalent” to conventionally produced foods, so there was no material difference—and no labeling was required. After almost 20 years, this policy is still in effect.
Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm President, explained that labeling GE foods is an issue of transparency, truth, and trust. These foods are different, he stated, and consumers want to know and have a fundamental right to know what’s in our food. Hirshberg cited several polls that show that more than 90 percent of Americans want labels on GE foods. And unlike the U.S., many of our trading partners, including the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia, China—nearly 50 countries in total—have laws requiring the labeling of GE foods.
The Just Label It campaign filed a petition with FDA in early October, which, to date, has received more than 500,000 comments from average Americans, roughly 15,000-20,000 per week, an extraordinary number in the history of comments sent to FDA. Hirshberg stated that the labeling campaign is not an effort to stop GE foods, which clearly already exist, but simply to label them. He stated that the science will be debated for a long time, but while this debate is raging, consumers have the right to decide whether they want to support the current system.
Redick, an attorney for the Global Environmental Ethics Counsel, who represents the U.S. Soybean Export Council and United Soybean Board, argued against labeling GE foods and stated that the current voluntary labeling system is adequate to meet consumers’ needs and that consumers can find many non-GMO foods in the average Whole Foods.
Harris noted, “Tom is going to lose this fight and Gary is going to win it.” He explained that when it comes to culture, it’s hard to beat our relationship to food. Noting that Stonyfield itself has grown largely because of the enormous focus on food, which Harris called the “designer jeans of this past century,” he stated that people are now identifying themselves with their food choices. He stated that industry has done a miserable job on this front, having promised that genetic engineering would bring benefits to consumers, when it has really been just a benefit for processors.
Focusing on transparency, trust, and truth, Hirshberg pointed to the $30 million public relations campaign underway by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance to fight the negative impression of big agribusiness, including the companies that produce GE seeds. He emphasized that there should be a $30 million effort for transparency to build more truth and trust for consumers. He noted Americans are looking for it everywhere, which is evidenced by the growth in organic food, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and the amount of coverage in major publications, like the New York Times, about our food system.
Harris noted that it’s hard to argue that consumers are overeducated about their food. He said he spends his life trying to get people more information than less, and that there’s an understandable desire for more information being felt across the country.
Hirshberg concuded by saying that in 2012, we should have the humility to know that we don’t know. Noting that the Just Label It e-book is live, he said that the campaign is not opposed to science, but that we need to be watchful of and health and environmental concerns, while profits are being made. His last word: Consumers have to have the right to know what they’re eating.