Modifying regulation

July 2014
US rally to support GMO food labelling.
CC photo by CT State Democrats on FLickr
If you've been following the news on GM foods in America, you'll have realised that an overwhelming majority of the people wants GM to be labelled. American democracy being what it is, vast sums of money are being spent by pro-labelling public-interest groups on the one hand, and a good deal more by anti-labelling industry giants on the other hand. The main result has been a tug-of-war which has served to raise awareness of the issue but resolved nothing.
Given the current level of information on food packages, which includes nutrients, trace nutrients, weird processed stuff, calorific values, sweeteners, and strings of additives, it's not obvious why it should be so difficult to add in the words “genetically modified”, and the industry claim that it would increase food prices is ludicrous.
A look at how US food regulations were bent into shape to approve one of the earliest GM offerings, 'New Leaf' potatoes, might give you an inkling of where the problem lies.  

Like many other GM crops, New Leaf potatoes have been genetically transformed to generate a 'Bt' insecticidal protein. Stage 1 of the regulatory mis-adventure happened way back when US law-makers decided to pretend GM foods were no different from conventional ones and so needed no specific laws. They did, however, produce guidelines for themselves which conveniently pigeon-holed the novel proteins generated by GM plants as “an additive”.
Since additives have to be labelled, GM-labelling should have followed automatically. This was inconvenient because as Monsanto itself pointed out “if you label GM you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it”.
It was doubly inconvenient because, under a 1958 amendment, additives are assumed unsafe until a “reasonable certainty of no harm” has been shown. In the case of Bt which kills insects, it can't not be harmful.
Regulators got round both these difficulties by morphing Bt-generating GM foods into pesticides. Oversight was passed from the Food and Drug Agency (F.D.A.) to the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) which applies a different set of laws. Unlike additives, pesticides are conveniently allowed to be harmful and to be in food at the same time: they are subject to risk/benefit analysis and assigned a 'safe' maximum tolerance level.
Doubly conveniently, the Food and Drug Cosmetic Act specifically prohibits the F.D.A. from including pesticide information on food labels. However, the trouble with rebranding a potato as a pesticide and handing it over to the E.P.A. is that pesticides are labelled.
This new problem was 'solved' by morphing New Leaf spuds back into a food. How this 'solved' the problem isn't clear because, as a food, US law requires them to be labelled if they contain allergens or are materially changed. Science has found immune reactions to Bt toxins, and GM potatoes are by definition materially changed by the presence of their GM additive. It seems the F.D.A. simply rebranded the Bt protein (derived from man-made DNA and never produced by a conventional potato in any form) as a 'natural' protein whose presence is immaterial to the health of the consumer or the potatoness of the GM potato.
Does any of this regulatory musical chairs and wand-waving solve the labelling issue for the public, especially those concerned about GM food safety?   
Well, under US Statute, the burden of proof of safety is on the manufacturers. Unlike Europe where the industry is given regulatory hoops it is obliged to jump through before GMOs can be put on the market, safety assessment in America is left to the biotech industry, and is largely voluntary.
This lets industry make up its own rules on GM safety as it goes along. How diligent it's being about fulfilling its apparently voluntary burden of proving GM safety can be judged from a comment made Monsanto's Director of Corporate Communications: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job”. This comment was made in 1998, but there's no sign the US food safety watchdog has noticed anything wrong with the system.
Do you get the impression that actually it's no one's job to check up on GM safety in America? America seems to be breaking its own laws, and allowing industry to break the laws, regarding both GM labelling and GM safety.
Remember all this next time you hear in the media that the GM safety debate is over. It seems the only thing debated has been how to bend the law to avoid the safety issue altogether.
  • Michael Pollan, Playing God in the Garden, New York Times 25.10.98
  • Steven M. Druker, America's hypocrisy over modified produce, The Financial Times, 18.05.04,
  • GMO-Free Europe: activists occupy EFSA headquarters, Global Project, 21.03.14
  • Ronnie Cummins, Monsanto and Big Food Losing the GMO and 'Natural' Food Fight, Organic Consumers Association, 16.04.14
  • John Herrick, Trade Group Vows to Sue Over Vermonts' GMO Labelling Law,, 12.05.14
  • J. Raloff, Bt-treated crops may induce allergies, Science News 156:1, 3.07.99
  • Terge Traavic, Bt-maize (corn) during pollination, may trigger disease in people living near the cornfield,, 24.02.04

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