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Next week is a key deadline for the push to require labels on all genetically modified foods sold in Massachusetts.
Five GMO labeling bills are pending on Beacon Hill, and Wednesday is the cutoff for lawmakers to decide whether to send any of them to the full legislature for a vote this session. Connecticut and Maine passed GMO labeling laws last year, but they won't take effect until several other states do the same.
WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with people on both sides of the issue: state Rep. Ellen Story of Amherst, who has previously introduced GMO food labeling bills and has one pending, and Rich Bonanno, president of the 6,000-member Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, which has lobbied against proposed GMO labeling laws in Massachusetts. First, Rep. Story:
Ellen Story: It would mandate that there would be a small sentence or a phrase on a package saying food in this product has been genetically modified or genetically engineered. It is not a large warning label. It's the same size as the other ingredients.
Sacha Pfeiffer: You said no warning. There's also no reference to possible health risks of GMO. And the science on whether there are health risks — it's basically the jury is still out. Is not having that language in there an effort to make the bill more palatable to the food industry?
Yes, I think so. The jury really is still out. This is very new. It was started in the 1990s. The studies that have been done have been funded by the companies that have a fiduciary interest in having GMOs. There are over 60 countries that require labeling, just informing the consumer that there are GMO products in this food. The government has said that these are substantially the same ingredients, there's no substantial change. But if people are taking out patents on these ingredients, it seems to me that that certainly does qualify as a material change.
Despite these unknowns about whether GMOs can affect our health, there are people who believe they could be dangerous, and they've been lobbying the legislature, including here in Massachusetts. We spoke with one of them, Nicole Cormier. She's a dietitian from Buzzards Bay and she's a member of the group Massachusetts Right to Know GMOs, and here's how she explained her concern:
"I truly want to know exactly where my food is coming from, who grew it, and that's just simply not possible in terms of genetically modified foods. We still don't know exactly what we're eating. And that, to me, is terrifying."
But what do you say to GMO labeling opponents who say that labels could be confusing or misleading for consumers in terms of a food product's safety? They may assume something's wrong with it.
I think that that's a misguided fear. If there were a skull and crossbones on the package, or if there were a huge red label saying, "untested GMOs," that would be one thing. But this is a sentence or a phrase of a sentence. It is not a scary flashing sign.
Although there is a study that's now more than a decade old, but that study found that if there were foods labeled as genetically modified, 57 percent of people would be less likely to buy them, and that certainly can't make the food industry feel good.
No. I think the food industry is quite worried about this. What is interesting to me is that the food industry insists that these are absolutely safe and there is no possible harm that could come to people from eating them. And I wonder, then, why they are fighting so hard to disallow consumers the right to know.
Opponents of labeling also say that if it's done, it should be done federally to make it uniform. What do you think about that argument?
Oh, I completely agree with that. And if the Food and Drug Administration were a functioning body, I think that would be an excellent idea. But we all know that the federal government is almost paralyzed. They can hardly do anything. So, I think, in that case what you have to do is the states have to take the bull by the horns and decide that we will start doing this on our own.
And now the perspective of Rich Bonanno, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation:
Rich Bonanno: We feel that this is appropriate to be dealt with at the federal level and that there's many ways the FDA can work this out. I think that the industry has been willing to look at it on a federal basis. But, frankly, going state-by-state becomes very difficult, especially with interstate commerce laws and the idea that some people will have to do things that maybe people in an adjoining state won't have to do. They could have competitive disadvantages, and any time you try to deal with a national issue on a state-by-state basis, it usually comes back and ends up hurting local producers.
Whether labeling might be done at a state or federal level, there's a biotech umbrella group called the Biotechnology Industry Organization that says labeling would be unnecessary, redundant, misleading, and drive up food costs for consumers. Do you agree with those four points?
Well, generally the concept is when you label something, especially on a food label, that it serves as a warning. There's a difference between a warning label and informational label. And I think that's the concern. I think certainly the science behind GMOs and having everybody from not only our USDA, FDA, EPA, but also the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, all are very much on board with this technology. And they certainly don't want to alarm the public.
How do you respond to people, including Rep. Story, who say that consumers simply have a right to know what's in their food?
Certainly this issue is a right-to-know issue and not a need-to-know issue. And that has been the problem with the way FDA views this. People could ask for anything on a food label that they feel might be of interest to them. What was the pesticide use like? What kind of fertilizer did you use? Is it conventional or is it organic? I mean, the amount of information that we could say consumers have a right to know could just go on endlessly. But FDA doesn't work like that. They work on a need-to-know basis. So, in other words, FDA says that if you take a corn plant and you modify it with a protein from a bacteria that protects it from insect damage, that that's still a corn plant, and therefore there's no need to put something on a food label.
Over the years, many consumers have gotten more savvy about food, and many people have lost confidence in the U.S. food system. So why not go for total transparency, especially if you feel that GMOs don't pose a health risk?
Well, I don't know that consumers have lost confidence in their food supply. I would question where you got that kind of information.
Well, when I think about people who are unwilling to eat meats that have been factory-farmed, and they're concerned about pesticide use, and are more conscious about shopping organic. So more of a wariness or a caution.
Any group can surface and create maybe a little bit of hysteria on the part of the public. We certainly have an appreciation for the concern of the public in wanting to know about their food supply, but to me a lot of it's based on just a lot of hype and hysteria that you can't find in the scientific community.
This story aired on March 13, 2014.
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