As the House Agriculture Committee continues to take testimony on H.722, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering, we have heard more interesting information.
During testimony a few weeks ago, a representative of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association testified that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does extensive testing on food produced with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. This was directly contradicted by Dr. Michael Hansen, the Senior Staff Scientist at Consumer Reports who asserted that the FDA does no testing but rather relies on the testing done by independent third party laboratories that are paid by the developers of the products. This sounds a little like the fox guarding the henhouse so we wanted to research and verify this assertion.
This week we had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Robert Merker, the Supervisory Consumer Safety Officer at the FDA and he, indeed, confirmed the fact that the FDA does no testing on these products. They, in fact, have no budget for testing. He cited one exception in the early 2000s when the FDA did testing during the StarLink problem. StarLink was the GE corn, meant only for animal consumption that somehow found its way into the human food supply. Kraft Foods recalled millions of taco shells because there was a strong possibility that they contained StarLink corn, which produces the Cry9C protein that might have caused allergic reactions in humans.
What is interesting is how the FDA came to accept the notion that GE food is not “materially different” than conventionally grown food and is “generally recognized as safe.” Research shows that on May 26, 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle announced the FDA’s new policy on the regulation of GE food. Three days later, the FDA announced that GE food is “substantially equivalent” to food grown conventionally and would not be subject to special regulations. This was justified by the argument that the safety of food should be based on its characteristics and not on how it was made. The only labeling exception would be if, for example, a peanut protein, a proven allergen, was inserted into a genetically engineered tomato.
“The reforms we announce today will speed up and simplify the process of bringing better agricultural products, developed through biotech, to consumers, food processors, and farmers,” Quayle said, “We will ensure that biotech products will receive the same oversight as other products, instead of being hampered by unnecessary regulation.”
It was reported in the New York Times on Jan. 25, 2001 that, in 1992, FDA scientist Dr. Louis J. Pribyl, expressed deep concern about the decision not to require special regulation for genetically engineered foods. In a memo to his colleagues, he wrote “This is the industry’s pet idea, namely that there are no unintended effects that will raise the FDA’s level of concern, but time and time again there is no data to back up their contention.” Dr. Pribyl knew from his own work and research on GE food policy that toxins can be produced when new genes are introduced into a plant’s cells.
In testimony from Steven Druker, the Executive Director and President of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity (www.biointegrity.org), we learned that Dr. Pribyl was not the only FDA scientist who had concerns about this policy decision. Mr. Druker, went to court to have internal documents released by the FDA. He was very clear that, in his view, none of the GE products are on the market legally; that tests should have been done to prove their safety; and that without notification, new products continue to be put on the market. He also made the point that genetic engineering is producing proteins that have never been in food before and proteins are what cause allergies.
Now the biotech industry makes the case that since the public has been consuming GE food for more than ten years with no ill effects, they must be safe. This makes one wonder if we have all been human guinea pigs. Furthermore, are the people who are experiencing allergic reactions and bad effects after eating GE food just imagining their maladies or are they having a reaction to it?
We also heard testimony from a number of businesses in Vermont, some of whom made the point that if they have to label their products as being produced with GE ingredients, it would be a hardship in terms of additional cost and keeping two inventories, as well as having to compete in states that don’t require labeling.
Testimony from Washington, DC attorney, Rachel Lattimore, verified testimony from Legislative Council that regardless of effective date contingencies, this labeling legislation would be seen as an imminent threat and a lawsuit would be forthcoming upon the governor’s signature.
A public hearing on this subject will be held at the State House on Thursday, April 12, 6:30-8:30 PM.