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90 Percent of People Want Labeling on Engineered Food, But We Still Don't Have it: Why Is that?

More than a million people have asked the FDA for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, yet we still don't have it. Why? Here's a little history lesson.

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Popular resistance is boiling over on the GMO labeling issue, as the New York Times reported recently in a front page story .

More than a million people have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food on a legal petition in March and on May 2nd, nearly a million voter signatures were submitted in California to place a GMO labeling initiative on ballot in November. Clearly, Americans believe strongly in their right to know what's in their food. Ninety percent of US voters want this type of labeling. Yet we still don't have it. Why?

Twenty years ago this week, then-Vice President Dan Quayle announced the FDA's policy on genetically engineered food as part of his "regulatory relief initiative." The policy, Quayle explained, was based on the idea that genetic engineering is no different than traditional plant breeding, and therefore required no new regulations .

Five years earlier, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush visited a Monsanto lab for a photo op with the developers of Roundup Ready crops. According to a video report of the meeting, when Monsanto executives worried about the approval process for their new crops, Bush laughed and told them, "Call me. We're in the dereg businesses. Maybe we can help."

And help he did - more than anyone could have ever imagined. Today, the politically motivated policy lives on, even though it contradicts modern scientific consensus.

How is it possible that the U.S. is making critical decisions about our food system with a decades-old policy that is at odds with global opinion? In a word: politics. As Quayle explained in the 1992 press conference, the American biotechnology industry would reap huge profits "as long as we resist the spread of unnecessary regulations."

Politics Not Science Set the Agenda

Dan Quayle's 1992 policy announcement is premised on the notion that genetically engineered crops are "substantially equivalent" to regular crops and thus do not need to be labeled or safety tested. The policy was crafted by Michael Taylor , a former Monsanto lawyer who was hired by the Bush FDA to fill the newly created position of deputy commissioner of policy.

In an ironic twist, the Obama administration appointed Michael Taylor as the deputy commissioner of foods in 2009, where he now oversees food safety policy for the federal government. Taylor's appointment was highly controversial , not only for crafting this pseudo-scientific policy, which laid the groundwork for helping GMOs avoid rigorous scientific testing and common-sense labeling, but also for his role in guiding the approva l of Monsanto's genetically engineered synthetic hormone rBGH .

From the start, the policy of "substantial equivalence" had many critics. The concerns by the FDA's own scientists were summed up in a memo by FDA compliance officer Dr. Linda Kahl, who protested that the agency was "... trying to fit a square peg into a round hole . . . [by] trying to force an ultimate conclusion that there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices."

As Kahl wrote, "The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks."

The FDA itself admitted as much in 2001, with a proposed policy that companies should notify the government at least 120 days before commercializing a transgenic plant variety and provide data on each separate genetic transformation event -- information they said they did not need for foods derived through traditional cross breeding.

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