Voters in Washington narrowly defeated a law that would require big agriculture and the chemical companies to tell us what foods contain genetically engineered ingredients last November. A similar ballot initiative for Proposition 37 failed in California the year before. In both contests, the “no” vote was solicited by a multi-million dollar campaign sponsored by the chemical companies and junk food manufacturers.
The Washington campaign for Proposition 522 was the most expensive in the state’s history, drawing national attention and millions of dollars in out-of-state campaign cash. The “No on 522” campaign raised an unprecedented $22 million, largely from big biotech firms such as Monsanto and junk food companies. By contrast, the “Yes on 522” campaign raised almost $8 million from GMO opponents and natural foods and products companies.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America donated $11 million from its member companies to No on 522 and was sued by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in October for concealing donors. The trade group then voluntarily revealed that members such as Pepsico ($2.4 million), Coca-Cola ($1.5 million) and Nestle ($1.5 million) gave huge donations to defeat the labeling initiative.
On Dec. 27, 2013, Sen. Diane Feinstein wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to re-evaluate the Food and Drug Administration’s policy that genetically engineered food does not need to disclose it is genetically engineered, stating:
“It is my strong opinion that consumers have the right to know whether their food originates from genetically modified organisms. Your administration should re-evaluate the Food and Drug Administration’s outdated policy that genetically engineered food does not need to disclose this fact on required labels.”
In her letter, she asks the president to help move the FDA to change its “outdated” policies because, “given these facts, I believe that genetic engineering is clearly of material importance to American consumers,” she writes. “Thus the outdated policy position the FDA took over 21 years ago on labeling should be revised.”
Seventy percent of packaged foods already contain genetically engineered ingredients, in the form of soy, corn, canola oil, cotton oil, rapseed oil, high fructose corn syrup or beet sugar. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Chapter 1, subpart B requires the labeling of ingredients in foods. The FDA was formed as a consumer agency to protect the consumer, but now the problem is that it appears to be controlled by the very industry it regulates. For example, the Obama administration’s deputy commissioner of foods, Michael Taylor, refuses to make FDA testing of GMO food safety mandatory. Taylor worked for the FDA from 1976 to 1981, when he went into private practice at a law firm who represented Monsanto, only to return through the “revolving door” to the FDA in 1991.
The current FDA policy not requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods comes from Taylor’s interpretation of the “Delaney clause.” The Delaney clause is a 1958 amendment to the Food, Drugs and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which states: “the Secretary of the Food and Drug Administration shall not approve for use in food any chemical additive found to induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.” The Delaney clause applied to pesticides in processed foods, but only when the concentration of a residue of cancer causing pesticide increased during processing. It never applied to pesticides in raw foods.
In 1988 Taylor published an article titled “The De Minimis Interpretation of the Delany Clause: Legal and Policy Rationale” in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology (now called the International Journal of Toxicology), which he had previously presented in December 1986 at a symposium on Topics in Risk Analysis, sponsored by International Life Sciences Institute Risk Science Institute, Society for Risk Analysis, and Brookings Institution. The paper was delivered and published during the midst of a debate and litigation over federal agencies’ interpretation of the Delaney clause.
As analytical instrumentation increased in power and more and more agents were found to be carcinogenic at very low levels, agencies had developed a quantitative risk assessment approach to interpreting the Delaney clause, which stated that if a carcinogen was present at levels less than one in 1 million parts, the risk of that carcinogen was “de minimis” and it could be allowed on the market. In the article, Taylor presented arguments in favor of this approach. Advocates in favor of organic food have criticized Taylor for taking this stance and have attributed the stance not to a good faith effort to reasonably regulate, but to an alleged desire to benefit Monsanto financially.
Between 1994 and 1996 Taylor went back through the revolving door to the United States Department of Agriculture, where he acted as administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service. Between 1996 and 2000, after briefly returning to King & Spalding, he then returned to Monsanto to become vice president for public policy. In 2009, Taylor once again returned to government through the revolving door as senior advisor to the FDA commissioner, and was appointed by Obama on Jan. 13, 2010, to another newly created post at the FDA: the deputy commissioner for Foods. It is Taylor’s interpretation of the Delaney clause that forms the basis of the FDA’s policy not to require the disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients.
Genetically engineered foods that exist on the market today either make crops resistant to pesticides manufactured by the same companies that genetically engineer the foods, allowing farmers to spray more pesticides on their crops, or make their own insecticides. The current food labeling laws should apply to genetically engineered foods, because there are several studies on animals and humans that show that, especially in cases of crops that are engineered to make their own pesticides, the toxins created by the genetically engineered crops are more potent than the natural toxins they are derived from, and they have been found to breach the digestive system in animals, creating precancerous cell growth in the ileum of lab animals. There are human studies which how that they permeate into the bloodstream of pregnant women, and infiltrate the brain of the unborn fetus. Because the genetically modified seeds are patented, and the owners must give permission for studies, and because studies are expensive, most studies are funded by the companies themselves, and the FDA does not require any independent safety testing of any genetically engineered food products.
However, as Feinstein points out, consumers have a right to know if the food they are putting on their families’ tables are laden with pesticides, and the labeling laws that are already in existence should disclose any ingredient that is not normally found in food. The FDA should make sure that the margin of error falls on the side of consumer safety.
Kenneth Eade is a best-selling author of “An Involuntary Spy” and an attorney