Over 3,000 different ingredients are listed among the products found on grocery store shelves—from conventional foods like corn and soy to chemicals, colors, and other additives. But one thing the labels won’t tell you is if the product has been genetically altered.
It’s not for a lack of curiosity. For the past several years, polls have shown that over 90 percent of Americans would like to know what foods contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.
But despite public interest, lawmakers aren’t quite ready to pull back the curtain. Nearly 75 percent of the U.S. Senate recently rejected an amendment that would have allowed for GE labeling. For consumers keen on more clarity, the decision was a disappointment.
“It saddens me that it didn’t get passed, because we should all have a right to know what’s in our food,” said Desiree Monica Dragin, a mother of three boys who lives in Georgia. “I try to dodge as much as I possibly can, but I can’t dodge everything.”
It was the first time a bill on GE labeling had been brought before the Senate, but the issue has seen lots of action among states. In the past year, 36 bills looking to label bio-engineered foods have appeared in nearly 20 states across the country.
However, state efforts are facing significant obstacles. In Vermont, for example, a recent bill saw strong support, but it was stopped when the biotechnology company Monsanto threatened to sue. The federal bill, sponsored by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would have given states the authority to require GE labeling without fear of litigation.
According to Sanders, nearly every major food corporation in the country opposed his bill. But food manufacturers say they have nothing to hide. The industry says they are simply following the guidelines set by federal regulators.
Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher said that GE labeling is already required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but only if regulators determine a difference in nutrition or safety from conventional ingredients.
“In the absence of such a difference, FDA has concluded there is no need or basis to mandate labeling,” said Helscher said in an email.
Regulators insist that GE ingredients are virtually identical to their conventional counterparts, but the science isn’t unanimous. Several doctors and researchers warn that GE foods are responsible for a host of problems, affecting both public health and the environment.
“The FDA says a lot of things are safe and they’re not,” said Dragin. “For instance, the FDA-approved breast implants I just had removed from my body came out moldy. They claimed that they were safe, and they’re clearly not safe.”
GE ingredients began entering the food supply in the early 1990s. But like many other consumers across the country, Dragin is concerned that there haven’t been enough long-term studies to adequately determine the safety of these lab-created foods.
While Monsanto and other GE supporters dispute studies that point to health concerns with GE foods, it’s clear that identifying these ingredients would make consumers shy away. In the nearly 50 countries around the world that do require labeling for bio-engineered food, many consumers shun GE ingredients.
However, U.S. lawmakers say they are cautious about mandatory labeling, because they want to protect the benefits the technology provides—including improved resistance to pests and herbicides, increased crop yields, and perhaps most important, more cost-effective food.
“Consumers certainly need to have available information. We need to make sure it’s accurate according to the FDA after they determine that, and I would make one other point,” Senate Agriculture committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told Vermont Public Radio. “You know American farmers are feeding the world with 7 billion mouths to feed this is harder every day. Science innovation is very important to that.”Supporters of GE foods say that public resistance is merely fear of the unknown. They say that with time, people will learn to see the benefits and embrace the new technology. Mandatory labels, however, threaten to slow this acceptance process. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) labels are “unnecessary and may actually confuse consumers.”
“Special mandatory labeling could mislead consumers into believing that foods produced through modern biotechnology are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk, even though FDA and other scientific bodies have studied foods derived from biotechnology exhaustively and determined these foods are safe,” said GMA spokesman Brian Kennedy in an email.
But many Americans would still rather make up their own mind.
“It’s not going to confuse people, it’s going to give people more clarity on what they’re buying,” said Dragin. “I think they’re afraid of losing money, and they aren’t sure themselves if it’s 100 percent safe, but they don’t want to scare consumers away.”
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