FDA is right: GMO foods are safe, and no labeling is necessary

January 24, 2013

Jeff Nedelman

When the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement in 1992 that genetically modified (GM) foods are safe and no additional labeling would be required, a firestorm erupted.

The policy developed under the reigns of Commissioner David Kessler, MD, who'd won kudos from the media as being a "tough cop on the beat" applied to all foods where scientists genetically engineer a plant or animal as they transfer a gene from one organism to another using recombinant DNA methods. It established two fundamental principles:

  • First, GM foods must be safe. They cannot be scientifically different from their conventional cousins in any way, including nutritional content.
  • Second, they do not require any consumer labeling. The FDA reasoned that a "GMO Free" label would imply the product was safer than a conventional one; such a "false and misleading" statement would violate criminal sections of the FFDCA and as a practical matter, senior food executives tend to avoid the risk of living at Fort Leavenworth.

Scientists hoped for a wide range of outcomes: GMO foods would provide resistance to pests and/or tolerance to herbicides; as the world warms, GMO foods would also require less water; vitamin A added to GM rice could prevent millions of cases of blindness in Africa; GM potatoes would absorb less fat when fried and create less acrylamide when cooked at home or in a factory.

Today, about 90 percent of soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, high fructose corn syrup, cotton, and alfalfa contain GMOs. Importantly, although Americans consume thousands of foods with GMO ingredients, our diets actually expose us to very to little of the engineered gene. Commercial food processing removes just about all traces of the GM ingredients.

Economic self-interest and lifestyle concerns guide the opponents. After all, the all-natural and organic industries would boom if labeling were allowed. Others argue that the public "has a right to know" their food contains trace amounts of GM ingredients. In my view, consumers have a right to know their food is safe and FDA should reserve labeling to convey serious health information.

As it turns out, one of the nation's largest and most aggressive food advocates, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, supports the FDA's decision. Several weeks ago, the "Green" movement in the EU was shocked when one of its founding members very publicly changed his mind and said he was wrong about safety and labeling. He was burned at the stake for his candor.

Consumers who want to avoid GM foods still have a choice: They can buy any food certified as "organic" under federal standards, as federal organic regulations prohibit the use of GMO ingredients.

Jeff Nedelman has more than 30 years of experience in various industries, including a stint as a Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and chief lobbyist for the nation's largest food trade association. In all those years, Jeff has learned that the shortest distance between two political points is not a straight line.

Originally published Jan 24, 2013 10:00:00 AM.