US: Genetically modified food prompts labeling tussle

More than 80 consumer groups, scientists, farming organizations and food processors are protesting a U.S. proposal that could forbid mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in other countries.

The coalition--which includes the Consumers Union, The Organic Trade Association, Food and Water Watch and the Union of Concerned Scientists--sent a letter last month to heads of the U.S Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, urging them to revise their position on mandatory labeling ahead of the Codex Committee on Food Labeling meeting this week in Canada. The Codex Committee is a United Nations organization that sets international food safety and labeling standards used to settle World Trade Organization disputes.  

The group further writes "We are concerned that the current US position could potentially create significant problems for food producers in the US who want to indicate that their products contain no GE ingredients, including on organic food, where genetic engineering is a prohibited method."

The FDA and USDA oppose allowing individual countries to adopt policies on mandatory GE/GM labeling because, they write, it could be "inherently misleading," and  "imply that GM/GE foods are in any way different from other foods."

The letter-writers, however, believe that GE foods--mainly soy and corn--are different and the agencies are trying to "solve the problem of consumer rejection of GM/GE foods in other countries by trying to force bodies like Codex to adopt the view that there are no differences between GM/GE foods and other foods, something which is contrary to scientific fact, USDA organic rules and existing FDA policy allowing for voluntary labeling."

Countries, including the European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have favored mandatory labeling of GM/GE organisms in food. In the U.S., such labeling is voluntary but growing. According to a Nielsen report, GMO-free was the fastest growing health and wellness claim on U.S. store brands in 2009. Whether or not this will affect U.S. policy in the trade meeting remains to be seen.


Publication date: 5/7/2010

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