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U.S. position on food labeling should change

April 20, 2010


Position Will Create Problems for American Producers to Label Products GM/GE-Free Upcoming International Codex Meeting to Discuss Food Labeling, May 3

Yonkers, NY—Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, and more than 80 farmers, public health, environmental, and organic food organizations today sent a letter to Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Food at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and to Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), expressing serious concerns that a proposed U.S. position on food labeling would create major problems for American producers who want to label their products as free of genetically modified (GM)/genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. A copy of the letter can be found online: http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/Codex-comm-ltr-0410.pdf
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a United Nations agency that develops food safety and labeling standards. Its standards carry weight because they are used to settle disputes at the World Trade Organization. The Codex Committee on Food Labeling (CCFL) meets in Quebec City, Canada May 3-7, 2010 to discuss the labeling issue.
The letter refers specifically to a position, drafted by USDA and FDA, that opposes a Codex document stating that countries can adopt different approaches to labeling of GE food, in line with existing Codex guidance. The current U.S. draft position goes even further to say that mandatory labeling of food as GE/GM “is likely to create the impression that the labeled food is in some way different” and would therefore be “false, misleading or deceptive.”
“We are concerned that the current U.S. position could potentially create significant problems for food producers in the U.S. who wish to indicate that their products contain no GE ingredients. Organic food in particular, which prohibits GE ingredients, are frequently labeled ‘GE-free’ or ‘No GMOs’. A recent CU poll found that two-thirds of consumers would be concerned if they thought that GE/GM ingredients were in organic food,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union.
The U.S. position paper states that Codex should not “suggest or imply that GM/GE foods are in any way different from other foods.” However, Dr. Hansen stated, “Such foods clearly are different. USDA organic rules specifically state that GE seed cannot be used in organic production. The FDA has also taken the position that within the U.S., voluntary labeling as to whether or not a product contains GE ingredients is permissible.”
The letter to USDA and FDA is signed by the Organic Trade Association, the Organic Consumers Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Organic Coalition, and R-CALF USA, among many others. A full list of the signatories can be found online.
“We find it hard to understand how FDA and USDA can argue to Codex that mandatory labeling is inherently false and misleading, but voluntary labeling, which is permitted in the United States, is not,” the groups state. “We are, in fact, concerned that the current U.S. position appears to seek to establish precedents at Codex that would make it difficult to label food as non-GM within the U.S.”
The groups also urge the U.S. to not allow trade goals to interfere with or overrule judgments made on sound science and existing policy.

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Naomi Starkman, CU, nstarkman@gmail.com