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Groups want biotech food labels

The Obama administration shows no signs of changing the government’s position on labeling of biotech foods, despite a renewed effort by consumer advocacy groups and environmental organizations to require food manufacturers to disclose the use of genetically engineered ingredients.

At the recent 2011 World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, a U.S. State Department official said such labeling would scare consumers away from those foods. “If you label something, there’s an implication something is wrong with it,” said Jose Fernandez, assistant secretary for economic, energy and business affairs.

Key Points

Anti-biotech groups are asking for labeling of foods containing biotech traits.

U.S. government isn’t changing its position on this issue, however.

Most of the corn and soybeans now planted in the U.S. contains biotech traits.

The State Department has been working with USDA to encourage foreign countries to permit the production and use of biotech crops. The European Union, as well as Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, already requires biotech food labeling.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long taken the stance that ingredients need not be labeled based on crop breeding methods.

Brazil, the second-largest producer of biotech crops after the United States, has seen little consumer resistance against its labeling law, said Roberto Rodriguez, Brazil’s ag minister from 2003 to 2006. The market absorbed the extra cost of labeling.

Pushing for biotech labels

A collection of environmental and consumer groups, anti-biotech organizations, and organic food interests are calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require special labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.

The campaign is a renewal of the unsuccessful effort that began in the 1990s when biotech corn and soybeans were first introduced into the marketplace.

The U.S. government has taken the position there are no legal grounds for labeling ingredients that are produced through genetic engineering as opposed to conventional plant breeding. The food industry says such labels are intended to scare consumers away from safe ingredients.

A website is asking visitors to “flood the FDA” with comments. The message: “In America, we pride ourselves on having choices and making informed decisions.” According to current FDA regulations, consumers don’t have a choice when it comes to genetically engineered ingredients in food we buy. Labeling is essential for me to choose whether or not I want to consume or feed my family genetically engineered foods.”

Groups backing the campaign range from the anti-biotech Center for Food Safety, which filed a labeling petition with the FDA, to the Environmental Working Group, Consumers Union and some natural-foods businesses.

Boosting food production

USDA and the State Department are working to promote use of biotechnology in Africa and elsewhere, encouraging countries to write regulations that would facilitate planting of biotech seed to increase food production.

“We can play a role in helping countries put together a regulatory system that will promote biotechnology,” said Fernandez. “We look forward to partnering with other countries to explore the many possibilities of using biotechnology.”

To develop biotech crops, genes from other organisms are inserted into corn, soybeans and other plants to give them new traits, including resistance to insect pests, resistance to herbicides and to provide drought tolerance.

If a biotech labeling requirement were enacted, virtually any U.S. food that contains corn or soy ingredients would have to be labeled, unless the product is certified organic. Genetically engineered seeds were used for 94% of the soybeans and 88% of the corn planted in the U.S. in 2011. Federal standards bar the use of biotech seeds to grow organic crops.

This article published in the November, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.