FOOD FIGHTS, FDA, AND FAIR TRADE:
Demonstrators Target GE Foods and FDA Policy
By Barbara Keeler
What does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have in common with Starbucks? No, FDA is not selling robust, heart-pounding coffee, or a generous helping of caffeine, sugar, and fat in one Frappaccino. Nor is Starbucks policing the U.S. food supply. Both are targets of Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and other food safety activists in Los Angeles and the nation. Both are asked to take a more proactive stand with respect to genetically engineered [GE] foods: FDA to regulate them more rigorously, and Starbucks to eliminate them.
On March 20, timed to coincide with the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting in Seattle “Franken-buck$” protests were staged protests in cities nationwide. Standing in front of Starbucks in Santa Monica, with a dozen protesters, were LA OCA coordinators Steve Urow, Danila Oder, and Janet Allen, and GE-Free organizer Brett Doran. Their demands: Starbucks rid its products of all GE ingredients and brew exclusively Fair Trade coffee, organically or sustainably raised by farmers and workers who receive fair earnings on their coffee or labor.
Outrage Over New FDA GE Foods Rule
A month before, Urow, Oder, Allen and Doran stood outside the West LA Federal Building with supporters of OCA, GE Free LA, and other activist movements. Drivers heading for lunch in Westwood were treated to some unappetizing predictions about what waited on their lunch plates. Demonstrators waved Frank-enfood” warning signs such as “Over 60% of your diet contains biotech foods, unlabeled;” and “Fact: Tortillas: pesticidal corn with bacteria genes, water, lime — FDA Label: Tortillas: corn, water, lime.” Honking drivers echoed the sentiments of the demonstrators.
One sign, “FDA Rolls Over for Biotech Industry,” laid out the demonstrators’ contention — the rule proposed Jan. 17 by the FDA to regulate genetically engineered foods fails to require labels, premarket approval, or a mandatory battery of safety tests for GE foods and ingredients. The FDA admitted that of 50,000 comment letters received, “most of the comments that addressed labeling requested mandatory disclosure of the fact that the food or its ingredients was bioengineered or was produced from bioengineered food.” Such labels would have made it easier for Starbucks and other food suppliers to accommodate requests for GE free foods and beverages.
In fact, Starbucks raised this same point in response to activist requests, saying they could not remove GE ingredients because “there are currently no guidelines or regulations in the U.S. regarding the identification or labeling of genetically engineered products.”
Why labels? “Genetic engineering of food is a dangerous experiment. Consumers have the right to know if they are part of that experiment. It is the FDA’s responsibility to let them know,” said Brett Doran, a leader in GE Free LA.
A Decade of LA GE
Doran, Oder, Urow, Allen, and other demonstrators represented nearly a decade of local GE activism. Safety challenges of GE foods hit the streets as early as 1993. A few demonstrators were surprised to learn that the first flyers warning about dangers of a genetically engineered food ingredient were distributed by Trader Joe’s in 1993. The brochures explained why the chain became one of first to ask suppliers not to send dairy products from cows treated with genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH).
Oder, the demonstration organizer, remembered well. Shortly after the Trader Joe’s alert, she and Allen organized protests for the Pure Food Campaign, now OCA. Doran joined them in 1994. In 1996, veteran Pure Foods organizer Steve Urow moved to LA and coordinated OCA’s aggressive campaign for labels. The same year, the international Great Boycott against the world leading producers of GE foods and pesticides was launched in Santa Monica. GE Free LA formed in 2000 to initiate local action. The February demonstration was also promoted by supporters of Great Boycott. Represented as well were Valley Greens.
Despite these activists’ efforts, and years of consumer demand for mandatory labels, the FDA’S proposed rule only sets guidelines for voluntary labeling of GE foods. Activists are not expecting to see many voluntary labels.
The rule also provides guidelines for food suppliers who wish to label foods as NOT genetically engineered. The FDA requests public comment about now-popular labels such as GMO-free. According to FDA, the possibility that accidental “presence of bioengineered material may make a “zero’’ claim inaccurate.” In other words, a supplier such as Starbucks could not be certain a claim such as “GMO free” would be truthful.
The FDA prefers a statement that the foods were not developed using bioengineering. It advises manufacturers to substantiate such a claim by documenting sources and handling practices of such foods. The rule, however, fails to equip processors and retailers to make such guarantees. To do so, they would need mandatory segregation and labeling all along the food chain, including in fields where cross pollination can occur.
Some suppliers have already decided that GMO free claims would be irresponsible until mandatory labels, segregation, and adequate testing provide accurate information to food suppliers. “We’re in support of honest, open declaration on labels — but we will not make statements unless we can guarantee they are accurate,” said Trader Joe’s spokeswoman, Pat St. John. “To honestly guarantee foods free of genetically modified ingredients, we would need government standards for segregating, labeling, and standardized testing of genetically modified foods.”
Greenpeace dramatically underscored St. John’s point early in March when it smeared egg on the faces of Kellogg representatives who had assured customers in letters and e-mails that its subsidiary, Morningstar Farms, had converted to soy that was not bioengineered. Greenpeace commissioned tests of Morningstar Farms veggie meat substitutes by Genetic ID, one of the oldest and most prestigious GE testing facilities, and found both GE soy and unapproved Starlink corn in its products.
Although Trader Joe’s has declined to discuss prematurely its ongoing research and process related to GE foods, whatever it is doing must be producing some effect. Last month. Greenpeace, GE-Free LA, and the Sierra Club announced that out of four TJ’s products tested by Genetic ID, only one contained GE ingredients —in other words, 25 percent. Estimates in the general supply of processed foods range between 60 and 70 percent. Meanwhile, Trader Joe’s has provided alternatives by loading its shelves with affordable organic products, produced by methods that exclude bioengineering.
Beyond Labeling: The Safety Issue
Labeling goes beyond the right to know, says Oder. “The absence of required labels means, conveniently, that the FDA and the biotech companies will never be held accountable for any damage to human health.” The FDA is required to act if foods on the market are found to be unsafe. Oder counters, “How would unlabeled GE foods be identified as the source of a health problem? How would FDA find the offending foods to recall them?”
Demonstrators supported legislation introduced last year by Senator Barbara Boxer and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Cleveland) to require labels for genetically engineered foods. Kucinich also introduced legislation requiring mandatory safety testing. Of the FDA rule, Kucinich said, “This new rule does nothing to protect the health and safety of consumers. It seems the aim of this proposal is purely public relations. It tries to convince consumers that their government is protecting them. In fact, the government is protecting industry.”
One of Kucinich’s objections is that the FDA declined to require pre- market approval, with mandatory safety testing for GE foods, as it does for food additives. Instead, FDA proposes mandatory notification 120 days before marketing a new GE food.
As part of notification to the FDA, food suppliers must provide data explaining why their foods should be deemed safe and equivalent to conventional versions of the foods. The FDA specifies information, such as comparisons of nutrients, antinutrients (such as digestion inhibitors), and toxins in genetically engineered and unmodified [TRADITIONAL, NON-ENGINEERED?] versions of the same food. According to FDA representatives, such data would require laboratory analysis. The FDA also requests data comparing the characteristics of any introduced proteins to those of known allergens.
FDA representatives point out that to date, everything required under the notification procedure has been submitted voluntarily by manufacturers of GE foods now on the market. Some suppliers have conducted animal feeding studies, although they are not required. In other words, little will change in actual practice. One change is that the FDA proposes to require that manufacturers’ notifications and supporting safety data become accessible to the public. If they can convince the FDA, manufacturers may claim that such information is legally protected confidential commercial information, but at this point the FDA does not anticipate that data submitted to the FDA under the rule will qualify for such an exemption.
Another change is that notification is mandatory. At the end of 120 days, if the FDA is not satisfied that the manufacturer’s notification letter addresses their safety concerns, it may notify the company that it should not market the food.
Great Boycott supporter Karen Lee is not impressed. “Like Congressman Kucinich says, that sounds as though FDA will protect us. What it doesn’t say is that the scientific data are reviewed by “experts” with biotech industry funding. It also doesn’t mention the Revolving Door — that the FDA is heavily staffed with former employees of biotech firms, or have been offered lucrative positions with these firms when they leave.”
Lee pointed to a sign held by another Great Boycott demonstrator, urging a boycott of all products sold by the leading GE food and pesticide producers: Monsanto, Du Pont, Dow, Novartis, Imperial Chemical Industries, Rhone Poulenc, Bayer, and Hoechst (AKA Aventis and Austra-Zeneca).
“We vote at the cash register,” said Lee. “A handful of corporations produce most of the pesticides and GE foods, and they control the seed supply. We refuse to buy their products, so they won’t use our money to develop GE products, then buy influence in regulatory agencies worldwide.”
Other activists adopt different solutions. For example, OCA, GE-Free, and the Great Boycott have distributed comment letters for regulatory agencies and letters to Congress supporting safety and labeling laws. Great Boycott supporters and GE- Free have comment letters at separate monthly action and information meetings on the third and fourth Wednesday nights, respectively. The next Great Boycott meeting will be May 16 in Santa Monica. The comment period on the premarket notification rule ends May 3. Comments on the labeling guidance may be received after that, but the sooner the better.
Even so, OCA and other food safety groups have limited faith in U.S. regulators. According to OCA Director Ronnie Cummins, “A close look at the European anti-GE movement over the past five years makes it clear that relying on the government or regulatory agencies to stop the Biotech Express through labeling or safety testing requirements is not the answer, at least in the short run.” Instead, he recommends eliminating the market for GE foods by taking the message to the streets, the media, and the marketplace. Hence, the Starbucks campaign, supported as well by Friends of the Earth, Rights Action Canada, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network, and Sustain.
The Starbucks campaign includes an economic justice element. To carry the Fair Trade label, coffee must be purchased, at an identified fair minimum price, by organizations of small coffee producers. Generally, such a farmer cannot afford to clear the rainforest and drench their crops in chemicals. They grow coffee in the shade of the tall canopies that host migratory birds. Fair Trade prices keep them from being swallowed by huge, ravenous plantations that clear the forest and rely on toxic chemicals. “When it comes to our food supply; environmental preservation, sustainable development, and social and economic justice go hand-in-hand,” says Cummins.
An important element is missing in many current food safety campaigns, according to Jon Rappoport, founder of the Great Boycott, author of “THE OWNERSHIP OF ALL LIFE”, and the publisher of nomore-fakenews.com. “We cannot address the problem without targeting the real source of the problem —the major multinational chemical companies who conduct the research and market the seeds. They will find other buyers for their chemicals and GE foods, developed and pushed with our money, unless they are stopped.”
OCA and other food safety organizations present at Boycott meetings. OCA permits food safety groups to post notices of events on there web — www.organicconsumers.org , which is a rich source of information about the downside of genetically engineered foods.
For more information about GE activist meetings in Greater LA, contact GE Free LA at (323) 259-2633 or e-mail: email@example.com ; Great Boycott at (310) 281-6962, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
To be on a list to receive notices about GE events and action alerts, contact email@example.com .
For a government perspective on GE foods, read about them at www.fda.gov . You can also find the text of the rule, with FDA’s rationale.
To comment on the
FDA Commissioner, Jane Henney, Dockets Management Branch Docket 00N-1396 (premarket notification and safety testing) or 00D-1598 (labeling). (HFA 305) Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061 Rockville MD 20852. Or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org , subject re: dockets 00N-1396 (premarket notification and safety testing) and 00D-1598 (labeling). Also comment online at www.foodsafetynow.org . Form letters are also available at http://home.earthlink.net/~alto/index.html
The Safety Issue
FDA representatives maintain they have covered safety in the rule. According to U.S. food and drug law, foods are presumed safe, and the FDA in turn presumes that genetically-modified foods are substantially equivalent to their conventionally grown counterparts.
The FDA proposes mandatory notification 120 days before marketing a new GE food, including data explaining why their foods should be deemed safe and equivalent to conventional versions of the foods. The FDA specifies information, such as comparisons of nutrients, allergens, and toxins in GE and traditional foods. According to FDA representatives, such data would require laboratory analysis. At the end of 120 days, if FDA is not satisfied that the notification letter addresses their safety concerns, it may notify the company that it should not market the food.
Dr. Laura Tarantino, Deputy Director of the Office of Pre-Market Approval, points out that to date, everything required under the notification procedure has been submitted voluntarily by manufacturers of GE foods now on the market. Some suppliers have conducted animal feeding studies, although they are not ordinarily required. In other words, little will change in actual practice.
Of concern to food safety advocates are flaws in the studies submitted to the FDA for foods now on our dinner tables. Conducted by the GE seed producers themselves, they reveal differences in both nutrients and allergens — statistically significant, proportionately large, or both. Some scientists wonder if further study with larger samples and more analysis would turn up significant differences.
Even if equivalence did establish safety, it cannot be established by the means company scientists have been using and the FDA is accepting, according to the conclusions of a 1994 Conference on Scientific Issues Related to Potential Allergenicity in Transgenic Food Crops hosted by the U.S. FDA, EPA, and Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The experts also maintained, and the FDA acknowledges, that no adequate animal models exist for assessing human allergenicity. Even scientists who recommend more stringent measures acknowledge that the best battery of available tests cannot guarantee safety or rule out unanticipated hazards. FDA representatives say that as better tests become available, they may add them to their recommendations.
While federal regulators and critical scientists agree that current science does not have adequate methods of ruling out unanticipated health affects such as allergic reactions or worse, they disagree about what to do in the face of inadequate testing models. Demonstrators and other critics contend that the world can wait for genetically-engineered foods until adequate tests can prove their safety.
Carole La Flamme, of Valley Greens, best summed up the position of demonstrators at the Federal Building, “Genetic engineering of food shouldn’t be done at all. The foods haven’t been adequately tested. The least they could do is label so we have a choice.”
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