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GMO labeling wisdom cast in doubt by extensive report

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An extensive report by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) on Genetically Engineered crop (GE) labeling was published yesterday. Titled “The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Food in the United States,” the document with over 100 references reports on the science, the politics and the legal issues associated with mandatory GMO labeling. Its summary closes with the authors’ exhortation:

Independent objective information on the scientific issues and the possible legal and economic consequences of mandatory GE food labels need to be provided to legislators and consumers, especially in states with labeling initiatives on the ballot, to help move the national discussion from contentious claims to a more fact-based and informed dialog.

The study’s authors are Allison Van Eenennaam, Chair of the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis, Bruce M Chassy, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, University of Missouri, Columbia and Thomas P Redick, Global Environmental Ethics Counsel, LLC, Clayton, MO.

The authors conclude that:

  1. There is no science-based reason to single out GE foods and feeds for mandatory process based labeling.
  2. Mandatory labeling based on process abandons the traditional US practice of providing for consumer food preferences through voluntary product differentiation and labeling.
  3. Market-driven voluntary labeling measures are currently providing consumers with non GM choices.
  4. Mandatory labeling could have negative implications for First Amendment rights and trade issues.
  5. Mandatory labeling will increase food costs.

In the extensive analysis that follows, the authors explain that the American Association for the Advancement of Science has stated that GE crops are “the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply,” and that the FDA has found that all current GM crops are equivalent to their non GE counterparts. Japanese regulators have reached the same conclusions. They cite the hundreds of peer-reviewed papers on GE feeding studies which conclude that these crops have not been found to have any detrimental effects.

The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) delegates food labeling authority to the FDA, and their regulations say that labels are needed to reveal “material facts” about a product. However, the FDA has concluded that new techniques do not produce food which is materially different and thus does not need to be labeled.

The important consumer misconception this paper address is the idea that “GMOs” are in ingredient rather than a process. Genetically engineered foods are foods with similar safety and nutrition properties produced by a different process. However the foods are the same and need not be labeled. In fact the genetic changes introduced by selective breeding are considerably greater than the changes in plants created by biotechnology.

To date, no material differences in composition or safety of commercialized GE crops have been identified that would justify a label based on the GE nature of the project.

The paper suggest there are several legal challenges inherent in state-based GE labeling. The Commerce Clause of the US Constitution gives Congress toe power to regular interstate commerce and forbids the states from unduly burdening interstate commerce.

The Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution makes federal law supreme in any conflict with state law, and since the FDA has taken the position that process-based labels can not be required for GM crops, this would overrule state law.

Finally, the First Amendment as been successfully used in similar court cases. In the landmark International Dairy Foods v Amestoy, a Vermont law was challenged that required milk from cows treated with rBST hormones to be labeled even though the resulting milk products were identical. The court ruled that this was “compelled speech” that violated the dairy producer’s rights and that the government had not advanced a government interest sufficient to compel the speech.

Even if a national GE labeling law were implemented, it would likely violate existing international trade agreements and could be overturned by the WTO.

Finally, the paper points out that creating a class of definitively non-GE products would have an associated cost, and that if the non-GE threshold were set low enough the cost of the food might be quite high.

In conclusion, this paper presents a number of scientific, legal and political issues that argue against the success of GE-product labeling. It is a through and thoughtful paper that every legislator and labeling partisan should consider carefully.

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