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Fishing for Labels

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The California Assembly did not pass the Consumer Right To Know Act, AB 88, introduced by Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and put to a vote earlier this month. This is too bad. It would have meant that food is "misbranded" if it is a genetically engineered fish or fish product, but its labeling does not conspicuously identify it as such.

The timing of this measure is significant, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing the first-ever proposed commercialization of salmon genetically engineered (GE) to mature more quickly.

Honestly, I don't get it. What's wrong with labeling? Most other developed countries -- the 15 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and China -- all have some sort of GE labeling requirements. And public opinion polls here in the U.S. have clearly and consistently shown that nearly all of us -- over 90 percent in recent polls -- want labeling of GE products.

"If you want to avoid sugar, aspartame, trans-fats, MSG, or just about anything else, you read the label." Mark Bittman notes. So why not GMO's -- genetically modified organisms -- why aren't they listed?

Because they don't have to be. In the Spring of 2000, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that labeling of GE foods would remain voluntary. Perversely, it is companies with GMO-free products that want to add “NON-GE” labels which have faced the tight regulations (and litigation challenges from industry). The agency argues that guaranteeing a product to be free of GMO material is virtually impossible.

It was 1992 when FDA cooked up this idea that GE foods need not be labeled because they were not “materially” different from other foods.  While the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires the FDA to prevent consumer deception by clarifying that a food label is misleading if it omits significant, “material” information, the Agency chose to limit what it considered “material” to only changes in food that could be noted by taste, smell, or other senses.  Since GE foods can’t be “sensed” in this way, FDA declared them to be “substantially equivalent” to conventionally produced foods, and no labeling was required. 

Wow. Has anyone told the FDA about nanotechnology? We have entered a brave new world of 21st century food science, yet we're using seriously outdated definitions of "material differences" and "substantially equivalent."

Here's my thinking on this: If I just made a better salmon, I'd want people to know about it. I'd want them to know that by adding just one gene from a Pacific Salmon to an Atlantic Salmon, I can bring you this GE salmon faster and cheaper and without overfishing its wild cousins.

I might spare everyone the part about how all the fish are infertile females, even if that's how wild populations are safeguarded. It just might be more than what a customer will want to read on a label, but it makes for an interesting backstory, no?

I'm not an advocate for the GE-salmon, nor am I a frankenfood-phobe. We've got to feed the world somehow, and well-regulated aquaculture systems are likely to be a big part of the solution.

What I am for is labeling, and not just labeling "bads," but labeling "goods" as well. Case in point -- the term "organic" on the label means this is a good product which was responsibly produced (without GMOs by the way). Let's take the stigma out of labels and have them do what they do best -- inform consumer choice. And while we're setting in place a 21st century approach to genetically engineered food products, let's settle on some suitably modern-day definitions. They may taste, smell and look the same, but there is most definitely a "material difference" between a salmon genetically altered to grow at a rate 6-10 times faster than its wild counterpart. Oh, and the former can't reproduce. If that's not material, then what is?

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