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Why we need to label GMO foods

Consumer Reports' experts say you have the right to know what you’re eating

Published: April 03, 2014 02:00 PM

Consumers have spoken: Surveys consistently show that 80 percent to 95 percent of people want foods that contain genetically modified organisms to be labeled. But the Food and Drug Administration isn’t listening. At a recent senate hearing, the FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, said the FDA does not support mandatory GMO food labeling.

It’s the same stance the agency has had for the last two decades. Since then, genetically modified foods—more accurately called genetically engineered, or GE, foods—have only become more widespread. About 70 percent of processed foods are made with genetically engineered ingredients. Usually it’s soy, corn, or canola oil, but sugar beets, papaya, and zucchini can also be genetically modified. And the FDA is expected to issue a ruling on genetically engineered salmon and genetically engineered apples soon.

Yet, there’s a lot we don’t know about the  health risks. “We’re still all guinea pigs when it comes to eating GE foods,” Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior scientist at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said. Some animal studies have found that genetically engineered foods may cause liver, kidney and bone marrow problems. There are also concerns that these products may introduce new allergens into the food supply. “When genetic engineering changes a plant, it may create toxins,” Hansen said. “And we still don’t know what the health effects might be.”

That’s why, from the beginning, Consumer Reports has been at the forefront of the push to label genetically engineered foods. “At the very least, consumers have the right to know what they’re eating,” Hansen said. Today, half the states in the U.S. have bills in the works that mandate labeling of genetically engineered foods. Last year Connecticut became the first state to sign a genetically engineered food labeling bill into law, and Maine followed suit in January 2014.

Unfortunately, both bills contain provisions that prevent the laws from taking effect until nearby states pass similar rules. Pushback from the biotech industry has been fierce. “They have deep pockets and will do whatever it takes to prevent the passage of labeling laws,” Hansen said. For example, just in the last two years, the biotechnology and food processing industries have spent $70 million to override ballot initiatives in California and Washington.

Despite this strong opposition, food manufacturers are getting the message that consumers want labeling. More than 15,000 products now carry the Non-GMO Project Verified seal (at right). The USDA’s organic seal (top) is also a good indicator that a food is genetically engineered-free. By law, manufacturers can only use it if their product does not intentionally contain genetically engineered ingredients.

But full disclosure for all foods is the goal. If you want to support genetically engineered labeling efforts, conact your state legislators and your congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., to express your views. For more information on genetically engineered food and labeling, go to the Consumers Union website, NotInMyFood.org.

—Deborah Pike Olsen

   

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