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Letter to Oregon Governor Supporting Mandatory Labeling of Foods Using Genetic Engineering

October 23, 2002
Governor John A. Kitzhaber, M.D.
State Capitol Building
900 Court Street, NE
Salem, Or 97301
Dear Governor Kitzhaber:
This letter explains why Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) supports Measure 27, the ballot initiative that would require mandatory labeling of foods and food additives produced using genetic engineering sold in Oregon, or produced in Oregon.
First and foremost, consumers have a fundamental right to know what they are eating. Many laws, at the federal, state and even local level, are designed to inform consumers of facts they want to know about food. These include laws that require labeling of juice made from concentrate, milk that is homogenized, imported food as to its country of origin, food that is frozen or irradiated, as well as ingredients and additives. All these foods are regarded as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration. However, this information is required to be given to consumers at the point of purchase because consumers care and want to know about these aspects of food. With this information, they are able to make informed choices for themselves and their families.
Second, we believe, based on our research, that there are clear differences between foods that are genetically engineered and foods that are not, and these differences are significant to many consumers.* Genetically engineered foods are foods developed and produced using recombinant DNA technology, rather than traditional breeding techniques. Recombinant DNA technology adds to or alters genetic material in a laboratory that could not be added through normal plant or animal breeding. As examples, this material includes bacterial genes that code for antibiotic resistance, which serve as “marker” genes, and viral genes that “turn on” introduced genetic material. Other commonly introduced genes include a bacterial gene that causes a plant to produce a substance toxic to insect larvae and a bacterial gene that makes the plant invulnerable to herbicides. It may be FDA’s opinion that these differences are not “significant,” but many consumers regard them as very significant and have told the agency so via tens of thousands of comments to FDA Federal Register notices.
The differences between a genetically engineered potato and a traditionally bred potato are arguably greater than the differences between a frozen potato and a fresh one, or between an Oregon potato and the same variety grown in Canada. Under current law, the last two facts have to appear on the label. Consumers have a right to know about all these differences.
With regard to safety, while none of the genetically engineered foods currently on the US market have been shown to be unsafe for human consumption, we are deeply concerned that the federal government does not adequately insure or test for safety to consumers and the environment. The US regulatory system for such foods is a patchwork with serious gaps and weaknesses. For example, FDA, the nation’s primary food safety agency, relies solely on a voluntary consultation process with the developer to assure human and environmental safety–which puts the basic responsibility for public safety on the companies developing the products. We think this is far too lax a process for such a new technology. Many critical data have not been gathered under this system.
Moreover, it is not even mandatory for a company to inform the FDA when a newly engineered variety of food is going on the market. Given the rapid globalization of the food supply, we are concerned that genetically engineered foods could be grown in foreign countries with no safety assessment systems at all and be legally sold in the US. The Oregon initiative would at least require such foods to be labeled.
A critical question in a safety assessment is whether a genetically engineered food poses a risk of an allergic reaction. A gene that produces an allergen could be transferred from one food to another. For example, when scientists introduced a Brazil nut gene into soybeans to improve its protein content, the engineered soy turned out to cause an allergic reaction in Brazil-nut-sensitive individuals. While this product was never commercialized, it illustrated that this problem can easily occur. There is also a question about whether newly introduced proteins that have never been in the diet before could turn out to be allergenic. Labels could help health professionals identify such a problem.
We thus disagree with the thrust of the letter sent to you on October 4, 2002, by FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford. Unlike FDA, we think the differences between genetically engineered food and non-engineered traditional foods are significant. We believe that FDA should have required labeling of genetically engineered food as a material fact under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. Indeed, several years ago more than 50 members of Congress sent a letter to the FDA Commissioner agreeing that genetic engineering is a material fact under the FDCA.
Further, we think labels could promote public health since they would result in government agencies becoming aware of genetically engineered foods grown in other countries that may not have gone through any safety assessment process. In addition, such labels could help health professionals identify any unexpected effects that might have been missed in the company’s voluntary consultation with FDA, in the same way that health professionals identify unexpected difficulties with FDA-approved pharmaceutical products.
Based on the experience of the twelve countries of the European Union that have instituted mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, we anticipate that the impact on consumer food prices will be negligible.
A mandatory labeling law in Oregon could have benefits in terms of agricultural exports. Not only European countries, but also, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia and New Zealand all have mandatory labeling requirements, and a labeling law would put Oregon in a good position to sell products in those markets.
There is ample legal precedent for Measure 27, such as Proposition 65 in California, which mandated labeling of any consumer products that contained a substance found to cause cancer in animal tests.
At the bottom line, however, the consumer is entitled to make an informed choice about buying genetically engineered food, and without such labels, they are in the dark.
We hope you will find these views useful and will support Measure 27.
R. David Pittle, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Technical Policy
Jean Halloran, Director, Consumer Policy Institute
Michael K. Hansen Ph.D., CPI Research Associate, Consumers Union
* See further discussion in our paper, “Genetic Engineering is Not an Extension of Conventional Breeding,” posted on www.consumersunion.org.