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Thanks to the FDA, You Really Have No Idea What's In Your Food

An estimated 60 to 70 percent of processed foods contains genetically modified organisms, but unlike 50 other countries, the US doesn't require labeling.

For years, polls have shown that about 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO). That's about as close to a consensus as you're going to get in this country. But amazingly, in this supposed bastion of freedom and democracy we're denied the fundamental right to know what's in our food -- a right that more than 50 other nations, including China and Russia, offer their citizens.

That's China and Russia, as in the big scary authoritarian countries known for communism, corruption and rampant human rights violations. They're at least doing a better job of trying to look like they care about protecting the freedom to choose what people put in their bodies. In the U.S., it's estimated that 60-70 percent of processed food may contain some GMO, but the food is not required to be labeled. This glaring disconnect between America's purported democratic ideals and the reality of how public agencies like the Food and Drug Administration can knowingly fail its citizens might be about to crumble, says Andrew Kimbrell of the Center For Food Safety.

His organization is part of a broad coalition of groups petitioning FDA for mandatory labeling of GMO-containing foods. Hundreds of other organizations have joined the effort, including consumer advocates, farmers, concerned parents, businesses, environmentalists, food and farming organizations, and members of the health care and faith-based communities. The goal of the coalition, called Just Label It, is to collect enough citizen signatures to its petition that the FDA will have to take action. Or force President Obama to make the FDA act.

There are three reasons why Kimbrell believes that now, despite decades of undue influence of the biotech industry on FDA policy, the agency's GMO armor will crack.

"First of all, Obama promised, when he was a candidate, to impose labels," Kimbrell says, referring to a  stump speech in 2008, recorded by Food Democracy Now, when the junior senator from Illinois promised to "let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they're buying."

"Second," says Kimbrell, "The coalition behind this campaign is uniquely broad-based. We've got the Organic Trade commission, food companies, big consumer representation, environmental and agriculture organizations. It's not unrealistic that we'll get millions of people signing the petition."

"And finally," he says, "we have extra leverage because it's an election year. With 90 percent of Americans wanting this, and millions of comments coming his way, Obama can do the math."

Kimbrell blames a decades-long revolving door between the FDA and the biotech industry for it being the least responsive agency to consumer concerns. "The FDA is composed of people who will soon be back in the industry." It's been stuck this way since the early 1990s, when the FDA hired former Monsanto lawyer Michael Taylor to write the regulations, or lack thereof, for the use of a Monsanto product called recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), which is injected in cows to boost their milk production.

Consumer backlash was strong against these GMO hormone injections, detectable amounts of which had made it into the milk along with inordinate amounts of puss. So marketers of non-rBGH milk understandably chose to label their milk as such. Monsanto fought for 10 years to stop this labeling effort, using a litany of crafty strategies, to take away the milkman's right to point out that their product does not contain injected hormones that contain recombinant DNA. The company threw in the towel after taking the battle to the state level and failing in every attempt.

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