Unlike most other developed countries—such as the 15 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and even China—the U.S. has no laws requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods. Yet polls have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of Americans, over 90% in most studies, believe GE foods should be labeled. As ABC News stated, “Such near-unanimity in public opinion is rare.”
There are many reasons why Americans want labeling of genetically engineered foods. For some it is due to health, safety or environmental concerns. For others, it is due to religious considerations. Still others believe that the right to know is a core American value.
So why has the FDA not acted?
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, so there was no material difference—and no labeling was required. After almost 20 years, this policy is still in effect today.
For example, a salmon that is genetically engineered to produce hormones throughout the year is not, according to the FDA, materially different from a non-genetically engineered salmon because it does not taste, smell or feel different. And without a label to tell us differently, when eating salmon, we would not know if what we were consuming had been genetically altered. Note: As of this writing, a decision to deregulate GE salmon and make it commercially available is pending.
People today want more information than ever. Yet, this decade’s old and out of touch FDA policy prevents us from knowing about our food.
The scientific debate about the benefits and risks of GE crops will continue for a long time. Meanwhile, an entire generation will have grown up consuming them. We should all have a choice about whether we want to participate in this grand experiment with our bodies and our environment. We have a right to know what’s in our food.