Bangor Daily News
August 14, 1999
Even as national consumer groups push more intensely to mandate the labeling of genetically engineered foods, and protesters are bulldozing fields of genetically modified crops in California, England and France, Maine's own initiative to require labeling has been suspended.
During this year's legislative session, LD 713, which would have required labeling of all GE foods, was endorsed by the Legislature's Agriculture Committee but indefinitely postponed on the floor of the House.
"For all intents and purposes, that means it's dead,'' said its sponsor, state Rep. Martha Bagley, D-Machias, recently. But that doesn't mean her fight to require labeling is over, she promised.
Maine is the only state in the country that saw GE labeling proposals pursued to the state legislative level, according to a consumer group. "You guys are way ahead of the rest of the country in environmental issues,'' said Laura Ticciatti of the Mothers for Natural Law Party, the country's largest GE labeling lobbyist.
"Maine is such a strong state. You should be proud. It takes a lot of courage for politicians to listen to their constituents and not special-interest money. We all know that money plays a large part of why GE foods are not labeled or tested,'' Ticciatti said.
The first GE plants were grown in 1983 by Monsanto. They differ from conventional plants in that they contain one to three additional genes, which are spliced into the plant's DNA, and a corresponding number of new proteins. The additional genes may increase the plants' size or help plants resist disease.
In the United States, 48 food products derived from GE crops have been approved by the government, including tomatoes, potatoes, squash, strawberries, and food products made from GE soy, corn, canola and sugar beets.
Maine is also the only state which does not allow genetically engineered corn to be planted. The Maine Board of Pesticides Control determined there was no need for the crop. The pesticides board has approved Monsanto's New Leaf potato, however, which contains the same genetic pesticide as the GE corn.
Bagley said her reason for promising to continue pursuing the labeling issue is simple: "People have the right to know what is in their food. "This is my concern. I thought we had a good turnout at the public hearings before the Agriculture Committee, but when it came to the floor [of the House] for a vote, the consensus was, TLet them do it at the federal level,''' Bagley said.
While activists in the European Union have lashed out for months against what they call "Frankenfoods,'' most American shoppers have been relatively complacent about the swelling numbers of GE products in their local grocery stores.
"That is because those shoppers are not even aware that many, if not most, of the products they are now buying, contain genetically engineered ingredients,'' said Bagley.
The government keeps no comprehensive list of brand-name foods containing GE ingredients, mostly because most manufacturers have no idea whether they are purchasing from GE growers or not.
A consumer relations spokesperson at Frito-Lay, which uses potato and corn products, said that although the company tries not to purchase GE ingredients, when there is a supply shortage "we have no idea who we are buying from. We are not in a position to guarantee all our products are free of GE ingredients.''
A Coca-Cola spokesman said any GE ingredients in the corn syrup used in its products are "removed through the refining process.''
Genetic ID of Fairfield, Iowa, a firm that tests foods and certifies them GE-free for export, compiled the following list of genetically engineered foods on the market:canola, cheese-making enzymes (chymosin), cotton, potatoes, prawns, salmon, soybeans, tomatoes, corn, catfish, tofu, yeast, squash, soybeans and soy products, rennet and some fruit juices. Consumer groups estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of all foods on U.S. grocery shelves contain GE components. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that within the next few years, 150 new GE foods will be approved for sale.
Ruth Welch, an FDA spokesperson, said her organization's policy on genetically engineered foods and crops, which was established in 1992, remains unchanged.
"FDA does not require labeling to describe what technique was used in the development of a new variety, and does not believe that the use of the newer techniques justifies a change in that policy,'' she said.
"Many of the food crops currently being developed with gene-splicing techniques do not contain substances that are significantly different from substances already in the diet, and thus would not require approval as a food additive,'' said Welch. "The law provides the FDA with the authority to ensure the safety of whole foods. It places a legal duty on those who develop and sell food to assure the safety of the products they offer consumers.''
The FDA does not test GE foods, leaving all testing up to the developers and states.
As shoppers become more aware of what they eat, however, they are pressuring international companies not to use GE ingredients. The pressure is being felt.
Gerber Foods, one of the world's largest baby food processors, announced earlier this month that it will no longer use GE corn and soy in its products."It is not a matter of safety,'' said a press release issued by the company, "but it is a matter of consumer wishes.'' Two weeks ago, protesters in California, England and France destroyed GE crops, including corn and rice, in an attempt to raise public awareness of the issue.
Japan, Australia, South Africa, the countries of Europe and much of the rest of the world are questioning the health safety of GE foods, further threatening the United States' export market, which includes large amounts of GE corn, potatoes, rice and soybeans.
Most recently, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has waffled on a previously staunch stand in favor of GE foods. '
In 1997, Glickman said: "Biotechnology has been around since the beginning of time. It's cavemen saving seeds of a high-yielding plant. It's Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, cross-pollinating his garden peas. It's a diabetic's insulin and the enzymes in your yogurt. Our best scientists have searched for risks. Without exception, the biotech products on our shelves have proven safe.'' '
But two weeks ago, Glickman abandoned his previous blanket support of such products and announced that, mindful of the growing controversy over GE crops, he will establish regional research centers to study the impact of biotech products.
Glickman said a recent discovery by Cornell University researchers - who found pollen from GE corn was killing the larvae of monarch butterflies - underscored "the need to develop a comprehensive approach to evaluating long-term and secondary effects of biotech products.'' Glickman stopped short of proposing the labeling of GE foods, stating in mid-July that consumers' distrust of GE crops is "scientifically unfounded.''
Despite the disposal of Maine's bill, Bagley and a grass-roots group of supporters are not ready to give up local control. She said she will be glad to bring the issue back before the Legislature next year. "Maine is so far out in the forefront in even proposing GE labeling requirements that I got a call from the Australian Embassy looking for information,'' she said.
"Australia is considering mandatory labeling.''
Ticciatti said Mothers for Natural Law is planning educational summits on GE labeling across the country and will hold such a summit in Maine later this year to help bolster Bagley's efforts.
"On a federal level,'' Ticciatti said, "we are walking the floors of Capitol Hill, educating and informing our national leaders.'' Returning to Maine last Friday afternoon from Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. John Baldacci said those concerned about GE foods "have raised some valid points. The scientific changes embraced by industrial agriculture raise many questions.''
"We do need to have additional testing. I have discussed these issues with my colleagues and look forward to raising them during the next session of Congress,'' Baldacci said.
Meanwhile, the bitter debate over GE labeling rages, riding on the back of a deep-seated suspicion of the safety of GE foods.
GE plants and foods are touted by supporters as a tool to erase world hunger and a way to curtail heavy pesticide use. The biotechnology companies that are proponents of GE foods, such as Monsanto and Novartis, say they will produce cheaper, more plentiful food that tastes better, stays fresh longer and will not trigger allergies.
Eventually, they say, these foods will offer greater nutritional value. Researchers are developing gene-altered fruits that will carry vaccines, such as a banana that will immunize against malaria.
On its Web site, Monsanto states: "We're excited about the potential for genetically modified food to contribute to a better environment and a sustainable, plentiful and healthy food supply.''
Monsanto states that 14 years of research and development of GE plants have included detailed safety studies. "Products of plant biotechnology are not inherently less safe than those developed by traditional breeding,'' Monsanto says.
Opponents, however, call GE foods and crops "mutants'' and liken the practice of genetically altering natural foods to "biodevastation.'' The debate rages hottest in England, where GE foods are banned in all government-run schools, housing for the elderly and other institutions. Opposition has gained momentum in Maine over the past several years. State Rep. Linda Rogers McKee, D-Wayne, recently gathered dozens of legislative signatures on letters in support of GE labeling which she forwarded to the Environmental Protection Agency, the FDA, Glickman and Maine's congressional delegation. "More than 50 legislators supported labeling,'' she said.
McKee said she believes labeling eventually will become mandatory "because American consumers have a right to know what is in the food they're eating.
Whether genetically engineered foods are good or bad, trust and confidence in them won't happen while the industry continues to refuse to label. This stonewalling just makes the consumer distrust the products even more.'' According to Ticciatti, a federal lawsuit attempting to block the sale of all GE foods is in the hands of a judge. "We are awaiting the judge's decision as we speak,'' Ticciatti said this week.
The suit was filed against the FDA by Steven M. Druker, executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, a national watchdog group, in an attempt to obtain mandatory safety testing and labeling of gene-spliced foods.
ABI's stand: Every genetic food in the United States is on the market illegally and should be recalled for rigorous safety testing. Druker says the FDA's motive is to promote the biotech industry and that they disregarded the warnings of their own scientists, taking a public position opposite of what FDA's experts were advising them.
The landmark lawsuit, filed just over a year ago by ABI and a coalition of scientists, public interest groups, and religious leaders against FDA, charges that the FDA allowed GE foods to be marketed without testing on the premise that they are generally recognized as safe by qualified experts.
Since then, public support for labeling has continued to grow. Last month, a petition was delivered to the U.S. Department of Agriculture carrying 500,000 consumers' signatures and asking the USDA to demand that Congress require labels.
Closer to home, a grass-roots movement in New Hampshire will propose legislation this fall to require GE labeling.
Bagley and McKee have pledged to bring the labeling proposal back before the Legislature next year.
"What is needed is full disclosure,'' said McKee. "If Americans knew more about GE foods, they'd demand labeling.''
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Last Updated on 8/23/99
By Karen Lutz