California has often led the nation in passing landmark legislation in the public interest. This week, the California Senate could once again be a leader by passing Senate Bill 1381, introduced by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, which would require the labeling of genetically engineered, or GMO, foods in the state. Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, urges the Senate to support transparency in the food system and to stand up for consumers’ right to know how their food is produced. Labeling genetically engineered food will give consumers the ability to make more informed choices about the food they purchase.
This week’s vote in Sacramento comes as a larger movement is underway in 26 states and in Congress to seek mandatory labeling of foods made from genetically engineered crops. California could follow in the footsteps of Vermont and become the second state in the nation to label genetically engineered foods. Connecticut and Maine have already passed labeling legislation, but the enactment of those laws is contingent upon other states passing similar legislation.
Last week, residents of the Oregon counties of Jackson and Josephine overwhelmingly voted for a ballot initiative that bans the growing of genetically engineered crops, thereby protecting their organic crops from genetically engineered contamination – despite the fact that Monsanto, Dupont and other giant chemical companies poured about $1.3 million into defeating the initiative in these small, rural counties.
In 2012, California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative requiring labeling of genetically engineered food, narrowly lost. Agribusiness and food corporations spent nearly $50 million in advertising to drown the airwaves and defeat the measure. Now, a groundswell of support by average citizens who are fed up with companies deciding what they should and should not know about their food is making it clear that the public wants to know how their food is produced. Thousands of calls and emails from the public are pouring in to California lawmakers in support of SB 1381.
States are moving ahead of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has indicated that it will support only voluntary labeling of genetically engineered foods, despite receiving nearly 2 million public comments urging mandatory federal labeling. The U.S. is far behind the 64 countries around the world that already require genetically engineered foods to be labeled. Unlike most other developed countries – such as 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.
While opponents claim that there is no mainstream scientific evidence of a health risk of genetically engineered foods, this obscures a more complicated reality. There is wide acknowledgment in the scientific community that genetically engineered foods may contain new allergens or increased levels of naturally occurring allergens, of plant toxins and changes in nutrition, in addition to unintended effects, which is why the European Union, unlike the U.S., requires not only labeling, but also pre-market safety reviews of genetically engineered foods. Even the FDA agrees that such problems can arise and urges companies to conduct safety reviews voluntarily.
The American Medical Association in 2012 recommended mandatory pre-market safety reviews of genetically engineered foods. Without labeling and pre-market safety reviews, consumers have no way of knowing if negative health impacts are tied to genetic modification of their foods. And that’s exactly what the biotech industry wants: to keep consumers in the dark about genetically engineered foods.
Whether or not a food is genetically engineered is a simple and clear fact. National polls show that a large majority of consumers want genetically engineered foods to be labeled. Foods that are frozen, irradiated, homogenized or from concentrate are labeled. Similarly, genetically engineered foods should be labeled so that people can make informed choices for themselves and their families.
Elisa Odabashian is director of the West Coast Office and State Campaigns of Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.