United States still struggling with food labels while Turkey leads the way

May 2012
Right 2Know March (GMO Labeling)
GMO Right2Know march in the USA. Photo Daquella manera on Flickr
In 1998, the EU responded to its citizens demands and instituted mandatory labelling of GM foods. At the time, Monsanto's PR department carried out the best damage-limitation exercise it could by claiming to agree that “You have the right to know what you eat, especially when it's better ... We believe that products that come from biotechnology are better and that they should be labelled”.

Europeans' right to know what they eat, however, wasn't extended to the animal products from livestock fed GM feed. The result has been that honest information about the main source of GM in our food chain remains dependent on the integrity of individual food suppliers and is, therefore, patchy.

In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can require labelling of GM foods only if they are considered materially different from their conventional equivalents. What this means in practice is that labelling will only ever happen if the biotech industry comes up with a value-added GM product for which a label will, usefully, broadcast the 'benefits'. Because the FDA has no budget for safety-testing, there's zero possibility of labelling on safety grounds. Neither has the FDA any authority to require labels just because a food has GM ingredients nor because US citizens want them: effectively, Americans have a zero right to demand labelling and zero right to know.

This situation is trying to change. In the last few months, GM labelling initiatives have been launched at all levels of administration in the US.

The Center for Food Safety is challenging the FDA's attempts to duck responsibility: in its view the Administration has not only the authority, but has a statutory duty to require labelling.

'Right-to-know' labelling bills have been drafted in several States as a result of record-breaking public support. In Vermont for example, surveys have shown a minimum of 94 % of Vermonters want GM foods to be labelled, and a petition to pass a labelling bill was signed by 4,001 people in this small State in only two months.

Besides the State of Vermont, California, Connecticut, Washington State, Minnesota and Hawaii have 'GM right-to-know' bills in the pipeline.

Congress has been presented with 'HR3553 The Genetically engineered Food Right to Know Act' for consideration. This Act would require GM food to be clearly labelled. It would also require the FDA to periodically test products to ensure compliance. The Congressman who introduced this legislation explained:
"industry has resisted objective study of the issue. To this day, biotechnology companies are largely allowed to self-regulate. Enough is enough. The American people are demanding a right to know. My legislation puts the onus on Congress to be responsive to the will of the people. It gives the power to consumers to make an informed choice about the products they consume".
On the down-side, there are so many stages that new Bills have to pass through to become law, they have a habit of stalling in committee. Also, regulators are facing the wrath of a very jittery biotech industry. A lawyer who has represented biotech interests warned the Vermont Agriculture Committee and one of its attorneys that the State would face a lawsuit from the industry if it passed its Bill. One Committee member said dismissively “We knew from the get-go that any meaningful bill would be subject to a lawsuit”, but at the moment nothing seems to be happening in State Houses in Vermont nor anywhere else.

While Americans are struggling to get the most simple information about the GM nature of all their food, and Europeans are still struggling to get the most simple information about the GM nature of the feed used to generate animal food products, Turkey is not struggling. The Turkish Minister of Agriculture has just extended labelling rules to cover products from animals fed GM feed. Campaigners in the area said:
“With this announcement our minister not only filled a legal void, but also showed that we can be a leader in the region and the European Union”.

Fifty countries already require some sort of GM labelling, and Turkey has handed its citizens full control over their choice of food. America, it seems, is going to be left behind.

There may be stalling in the law-making process, and threats from industry, and probably law-suits to be heard, but with this kind of public pressure building up, one State will pass a right-to-know law and when the flood-gates open, all Americans will get GM labels on their food.

No doubt when this happens, Monsanto will fall back on a declaration that GM should be labelled because it's better, even after the Company has been a party to suing every State which required honest labelling of GM foods.

  • GMO label movement faces hurdles Vermont, Burlington Free Press, 23.04.12
  • Vermont Right to Know GMOs hosts an unlabeled and unnatural buffet at the Vermont State House, VT Digger, 11.04.12
  • Carl Etnier, Scores testify in favor of GE food labeling bill, VT Digger, 12.04.12
  • GM Food Labeling News, The Organic & Non-GMO Report, Issue 119, December/January 2012
  • GMO labels for products coming, Hurriyet Daily News, 19.04.12
  • Outrage! Organic Consumers Association, Organic Bytes, 3.05.12

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