A disjointed system of food inspection means about 48 million Americans contract a food-borne illness per year.
In the U.S., the push to label foods produced with genetically-modified organisms has created a war of attrition between activists that demand full disclosure concerning the content of publicly-sold foods and an industry determined to sell the safeness of GMO-foods.
With more than 60 genetically-modified variations of crops currently approved for human consumption in the U.S. — including 20 varieties of corn, 11 varieties of canola and three varieties of soybeans — the question of labelling GMO-foods directly plays into the debate concerning the nation’s food security.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has moved on the offensive in this fight, proposing — counterintuitively — that the federal government should impose a new GMO labelling law. The proposal argues that the federal standard for labelling should be a voluntary one, with the food manufacturer having the prerogative to label their products GMO-containing or not.
In exchange, per a draft of the proposed legislation — as obtained by Politico — the food industry will adhere to tightened Food & Drug Administration requirements. This includes pre-screening of GMO-containing foods by the FDA 120 days before planned introduction to the marketplace and the use of mandated labels on foods that are materially different (other than being bioengineered) from its non-GMO version. The food industry also agreed to not to make claims of no GMO-content if a framework to trace GMO-presence has not been established by the manufacturer.
The GMA proposed this legislation in regards to a recent rash of movement stateside in regards to GMO-labelling, including failed ballot measures in California and Washington State, proposed ballot measures in Oregon, recently passed legislation in Connecticut and Maine and consideration for legislation in several states.
“These state-based labelling initiatives — which only mislead consumers into thinking foods produced using GM technology pose a health risk or are different than what’s been on their shelves for the last 20 years — would create an unnecessary state patchwork of conflicting labeling requirements which would snarl inter-state commerce and create confusion, reduce choices and increase cost for consumers,” wrote the GMA.
A GMO nation
In the U.S., the majority of the nation’s edible staples are GMOs. While wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, rice and sugar beet are not grown from GMO-stock due to market opposition, more than 85 percent of the nation’s soybeans and 50 percent of the nation’s corn are GMOs. These plant stocks originate from a small group of bioengineering firms, including Monsanto and Syngenta.
This proposed legislation, in which some analysts are calling a “legislative hail Mary,” is being seen as a stopgap measure to prevent the potential nightmare scenario of manufacturers of produced goods that utilized soybeans, soybean oil, tofu, corn, corn syrup or corn oil as an ingredient having to adapt to 50 separate state standards. As most major manufacturers have national manufacturing and distribution hubs, producing 50 separate packages for a product would ratchet up production costs.
However, many feel that addressing GMO-labeling is the wrong way to approach the issue of food safety. In this country, food regulation is a mismatch of overlapping federal and state regulations. Per a 2007 United States Government Accountability Office report, 15 different agencies are charged with the administration of at least 30 food safety laws, with no one organization having complete oversight over the whole of the nation’s food supply.
A broken food safety net
Primarily, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of the meat supply — with jurisdiction falling to the Food Safety and Inspection Service — and the FDA is responsible for non-meat foods. While this is, more or less, clear-cut, it is in the details that things fall apart. For example, the USDA is mandated under law to examine and inspect all slaughtered animals and to physically be present at all processing facilities at least once per operating day. However, there is no mandate for inspection frequency for the FDA.
Likewise, both the FDA and the USDA are responsible for the inspection of imported food shipments. However, the FDA and the USDA do not share inspection resources at the ports, meaning the food shipments are inspected twice or — more likely — not at all. Also, food recalls under the current food safety system are voluntary. While both the FDA and the USDA both have guidelines to advise companies on when to issue a recall, there is no underlying system to inform either the USDA or the FDA on how recalls are being carried out, how promptly was the response or if the recall affected the whole of the distribution chain. Additionally, there are no established channels in place to alert consumers of a recall.
This disjointed system has created a fragmented safety net that has led to approximately 48 million Americans — or roughly one-sixth of the nation’s population — contracting a food-borne illness per year, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. The true problem with the food supply, as argued by many critics, is the corporate control over it. In most situations, the government relies on business cooperation to coordinate food safety issues.
According to a 2010 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, as covered by Reuters, one in four surveyed food safety investigators have seen corporate interests forcing their agency to modify or withdraw a consumer-protection policy or action over the previous year.
“Upper level management does not adequately support field inspectors and the actions they take to protect the food supply,” said Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who oversees federal slaughter house inspectors. “Not only is there lack of support, but there’s outright obstruction, retaliation and abuse of power.”
Questions about mandatory labeling
In addressing the issue of GMO-labeling, a few key points become evident. First, labeling a food GMO does not exclude it from the food supply. While there are non-GMO versions of crops available — such as organic varieties — the exclusion of GMO-crops in manufacturing would raise the production cost of the product. For example, many manufactured goods are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, which is made from GMO-corn. The cost of switching to a non-GMO sweetener would be reflected in the product’s price.
In addition, proposed GMO-labelling laws do not highlight what ingredients are suspect, but that there is a traceable GMO-product used in making the food. Without highlighting the concern, the labelling becomes simply marketing.
For example, General Mills recently offered a GMO-free version of its original Cheerios, due to consumer demand. However, General Mills did not alter the formulation for its other versions of Cheerios. While the “right-to-know” represents a significant measure of consumer control, it ultimately reflects the larger issue that economic cost, and not food safety, is the overall deciding factor in such calculations.
Leaving such decisions in few hands potentially threatens the whole of the food supply. Monsanto, for example, offer seeds for most of the nation’s corn and soybean supply.
“My personal concern about GMOs is corporate control of the food supply,” food policy expert Marion Nestle told ThinkProgress in an email. “I don’t think it’s good for American democracy to have one corporation in charge of such a large proportion of the food supply.”
Ultimately, the government must remove corporate influence from the food safety discussion. The nation must establish a single standard for food inspections, establish the mechanism needed implement it and show the political strength to stand up against corporate lobbying.
While GMO-labeling may be too late to solicit true change in the food supply, an active effort toward ensuring safe food might.