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Why the Center for Science in the Public Interest Is Wrong Not to Support Genetically Engineered Food Labeling

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), often seen as a leader in nutrition policy, stands virtually alone in its continued opposition to labeling GE foods.
 
 
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You may have noticed the impressive grassroots movement gathering steam lately over the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. Recently, Connecticut  became the first state in the nation to enact a law to require such labels, and  26 other states have introduced similar bills this year. Millions of Americans are demanding more transparency in the food supply and our elected officials are finally responding, after decades of work by groups like Center for Food Safety (CFS). 

But one advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), often seen as a leader in nutrition policy, stands virtually alone in its continued opposition to labeling GE foods. This stance is troubling and confusing given how outspoken CSPI has been for decades on food labeling and consumer information.

CSPI’s position, explained in this recent news  interview, boils down to three claims:

  1. GE foods do not present either safety or nutrition concerns;
  2. Processed GE foods do not contain genetically-engineered material;
  3. Non-GE labels are “misleading” because they imply a safer or superior food.

Let’s take these one by one.

GE Food Safety Is an Open Question

First, CSPI  claims that genetically engineered food labeling is “not a food safety or a nutritional issue - it’s not like allergens or trans fats.”

This is a pretty bold statement to make given how little information is available on the safety of GE foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not  require or conduct safety studies on GE foods, nor does it approve GE foods as safe. Instead, there is only confidential consultation between industry and FDA, where GE food developers decide what summary information to provide the agency; and even that is  voluntary. So we are essentially taking the biotech industry’s word that GE food is not hazardous. CSPI itself acknowledges that the government isn’t doing its job,  calling onFDA to “require a mandatory pre-market approval process” and “formally approve that the crop is safe for human and animal consumption.” How can CSPI on the one hand admit we need more rigorous oversight, while on the other claim there is no safety issue? 

Further, while obviously no substitute for adequate food safety oversight, mandatory labeling of GE foods will allow the detection of adverse health effects of consuming such foods. Without labeling, anyone who gets sick from eating a GE food has no way of identifying the cause.

It’s also odd that CSPI would distinguish allergens from GE foods, given that allergic reactions, which can be life-threatening, are the most widely accepted health threat posed by GE organisms. As Michael Hanson, senior scientist with Consumers Union, noted in his  testimony in support of the Connecticut GE labeling bill in March: “The human safety problems that may arise from GE include introduction of new allergens or increased levels of naturally occurring allergens, of plant toxins, and changes in nutrition.”  

He also testified in regards to the GE salmon moving closer to federal approval ( despite overwhelming public opposition): “Company data suggest that it may exhibit increased allergenicity.” And although the federal government has approved numerous pesticides genetically engineered into corn and cotton, in 2009 they also  funded research to better determine if they can trigger food allergies. In the meantime, the allergy risk from GE food justifies a safety-based label similar to those warning that a food contains nuts.

Many Food Labels Are Not About Safety

In addition, safety is not the defining factor for requiring food labels. We label all sorts of things not based on safety concerns per se. Take basic ingredient labeling,  which CSPI supports. We don’t question the safety of every single ingredient that foods contain, but each is still required to appear on the label, because consumers have the right to know what is in their food.

 
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