Ambiguity: It’s What’s for Dinner

On April 24, 2013 H.R. 1699 , the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was introduced  in the U.S. House of Representatives. According to govtrack.us, the bill has a 3% chance of getting out of committee, and a 0% chance of being passed. Based on the 112th Congress’ track record and early indications from the 113th, these uber low probabilities are not, per se, all that surprising. What is disappointing is the indifference toward the topic of this bill, both by our government and the public at large.  H.R. 1699 proposes approximately a handful (the entire bill is only 8 pages long) of amendments to  Section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act  which would “…establish a consistent and enforceable standard for labeling of foods produced using genetic engineering…thereby providing consumers with knowledge of how their food is produced.”

This doesn’t – on its face – seem like a very complicated or controversial concept. Over the past 10 or so years, the FDA has done a lot in terms of enhancing disclosure of ingredients in packaged foods. While more than 60 countries already require disclosure of genetic engineering on food labels, the U.S. remains one of the few developed countries that does not require this type of labeling.

The Pro-GE camp argues that genetic engineering of crops increases yield, which allows more people to be fed more affordably. It makes crops more resistant to harsh weather conditions, such as drought, and extends the life of produce, which supports the globalization of the produce market.  They argue, predictably, that the added cost of the additional labeling and disclosure would be passed along to consumers And, they contend, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, don’t let a small detail like an extra bill throw you off.

Which is exactly the argument of the opposing side. A transvestite may present as a man or a woman, but genetically, it is something different. And, if it’s really no big deal, what is the problem with full disclosure?

Studies have shown that there are consequences of genetically engineered crops: to farmers, consumers, animals, and the environment.  But, mostly, it’s an integrity issue. According to the Center for Food Safety, as much as 85% of U.S. corn, 88% of cotton, and 91% of soybeans are genetically modified, and more than  75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients. With genetically engineered food being so pervasive in our food supply, it is unlikely we can totally avoid these foodstuffs, but proper labeling would provide consumers the opportunity to actually control what enters our bodies. However, this side’s misgivings about the proposed legislation is that it does not go far enough in that it exempts food outlets such as restaurants and does not address important food chain issues, such as identifying animals that may have consumed feed made with genetically engineered materials or been administered genetically engineered vaccines, or crops that may have been fertilized with manure from animals exposed to genetically engineered materials.

It is important to note, too, that the choice to consume or not to consume genetically engineered foodstuffs is not simply a lifestyle choice, it is – in some cases – a matter of life or death. This World Health Organization report is but one group that equates the rise in food allergies with the increased use of genetic engineering of the food supply; allergies that can result in anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.

Regardless of where you align on this issue, the bottom line is that we all have the right to know what we are buying, what we are eating, and the consequences of our choices and actions. In an age where Congress will form an investigative committee and hold exhaustive hearings over Americans’ inherent Right to Know, they remain strangely quiet on this issue. Time to give them a jingle and tell them there is no room for doubt at your dining table.

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