WHAT’S IN THE GENES?
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Connecticut has joined debate on labeling genetically altered food
BY RICK HARRISON
Virginia Dalmaso couldn’t be sure if her shopping cart contained genetically modified food. But she wanted to know, even if she wasn’t sure why. “If people don’t know what it means, they might hesitate to buy,” Dalmaso said while shopping at Town Plot Supermarket in Waterbury on Tuesday. “I probably would.”
This year, Connecticut joined about 20 other states that have recently debated laws requiring suppliers to label all genetically modified food. Though Connecticut’s bill died in the last session, House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, has begun to form a bipartisan legislative task force to investigate the issue.
In November, California voters will likely entertain a ballot initiative to create a labeling mandate in their state, where 11 percent of the country’s agricultural value originates.
Last year, farmers around the world grew 160 million hectares of crops created by combining genetic material from different species of organisms intended to produce desired traits such as resistance to insects or delayed ripening. Global biotech crop acreage has grown 8 percent since 2010 and 9,312 percent from when the practice began 16 years earlier.
In the United States, about 70 percent of processed food in grocery stores contains some portion of genetically modified organisms, bio-engineered ingredients often referred to as GMOs.
And while proponents of the technology consider it a leap forward in helping to feed a growing global population, advocates for labeling express doubts about its efficacy and concerns about its risks, while seeking to educate consumers. “It’s pretty much our mantra that we have a right to know what’s in our food,” said Analiese Paik, co-founder of Right To Know CT, a group advocating for labeling in the state. “We are asking the food manufacturers to let consumers know, because there is no other way to know what’s in their food. So they can make an informed choice.”
But opponents of the proposal — including the state Department of Agriculture — consider it a competitive disadvantage for Connecticut farmers and retailers, and an idea better addressed nationally. And some deem it a solution to a nonexistent problem.
“The organic label is there if people feel strongly about it,” said Paul Pescatello, president of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, a group representing biotechnology companies, researchers and universities. “But labeling it as a separate thing, it’s almost like creating a health issue that doesn’t exist.”
THE U.S. FOOD AND DRUG Administration determined in 1992 that foods derived from genetically manipulated plants did not differ from other foods in any meaningful way or represent any greater safety concerns. Granting the designation “generally recognized as safe,” the agency does not require any special labeling requirements for GMOs. An FDA spokesman said a label touting a product as not containing bio-engineered ingredients could be deemed misleading if it implies superiority to a product without such a label.
“If something is substantially equivalent, what is the label telling you?” Pescatello said.
“What is the value of the label? I think there’s an implication of something negative.
And also that there’s a substantial difference. And that substantial difference does not exist.”
Paik considered the FDA’s conclusion ludicrous.
“That is actually laughable, because you could take a grade school student and say the FDA thinks these conventional foods we’ve been eating for a millennium are the same as food created in a biotech lab,” she said. “They contain DNA from another species. Sometimes from another kingdom. Like viruses and bacteria. The children will look at you and say, ‘No, they’re not the same.’”
GMO opponents worry about unintended consequences, including depletion of nutrients, increase in natural toxins, growing antibiotic resistance, and greater allergic responses.
But Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, sees no proven causal relationship with any such outcome, placing the burden on those who see a benefit to labeling.
“It’s why we’re saying if someone wants to make the claim that something is nonGMO, let them put it on the label as a positive aspect of the product,” Sorkin said. “If it is a true safety issue, and it’s required by the FDA, it should be national in scope.”
State Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, championed the labeling bill as chairman of the Environment Committee. He criticized the FDA as a pawn of the food industry.
“We’re supposed to be a responsive, open government,” Roy said. “When stuff like this happens, especially down in Washington, it shows you the power of money. The people who kneel at the altar of the almighty dollar have brought Congress with them, and they worship together.”
And he didn’t expect much progress from the task force.
“I think what legislative leadership is looking to do is cover their behinds,” Roy said. “They’ve got to step forward and be a leader. This is something that people are calling for.”
STATE REP. PHIL MILLER, D-Essex, will serve as the task force’s chairman, and he planned to call a meeting next month with a goal of laying the groundwork to reintroduce the bill in the next session.
“Every day I’m hearing from more and more people who would really like to see us go in that direction,” Miller said. “I don’t see this as a passing fancy.”
Over the last decade, more than 40 countries have introduced some form of labeling law for GMOs, including Japan, Australia, China and the members of the European Union.
“If we didn’t use genetically modified foods we wouldn’t be able to feed the world,” Pescatello said. “The amount of regulation the companies and the food producers are under is huge. I think they’ve met the burden of proof.”
Paik, the Right to Know CT founder, sees efforts to withhold labels from American consumers as a foolish ploy.
“When has information ever hurt the consumer?” Paik said. “Never. An informed consumer is your best customer.”
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