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The Planet

Tell FDA to Test and Label GE Foods

Rally at Trader Joe'sWhether you're pushing a shopping cart through a specialty market like Trader Joe's or down the aisle of a chain store like Safeway, there's no way to tell whether the box of cereal you just pulled off the shelf contains genetically engineered corn. And if there is such corn in the box, you can't be sure that it's safe for you and the environment.

That's just fine as far as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is concerned. The agency recently released proposed rules governing the approval of genetically engineered food products and their labeling.

The FDA's recommendation? Companies don't have to safety-test them, and they don't have to label them.

GE Free FoodInstead, companies would notify the agency at least 120 days before a new genetically engineered product hit the market. Then the FDA would set up a "consultation," which, according to the agency's own rules, could even be held over the telephone. As for labeling, companies would do so on a voluntary basis.

"Voluntary consultations about food safety and voluntary labeling of genetically engineered food products for human consumption is not what's best for people or the planet," said Laurel Hopwood, chair of the Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering Committee.

The use of genetically engineered crops is expanding rapidly. Currently, half the soybean crops in the country are genetically engineered, and more than two-thirds of processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients. Such crops are created by inserting the genes of one species into another, and are designed to fend off insects and withstand herbicides.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has the authority to set the standards for what may be considered "organic," proposed rules that, among other things, would allow genetically engineered and irradiated foods to be called organic. Close to 300,000 people sent critical comments to the agency. When the final standards were announced in February, such foods were not allowed under the organic label.

Hopwood is hoping a similar public outcry will force the FDA to change its proposal on genetically engineered food.

"We must have mandatory pre-market safety testing and environmental studies and mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered foods," she said. "And we should take these foods off the shelves of grocery stores until this is done."

The agency is taking public comment on its plan until April 3.

As the federal rules are crafted, some Sierra Club groups are putting pressure directly on retailers, asking them not to carry genetically engineered food products. The Angeles (California) Chapter has taken on Trader Joe's, which has stores in 14 states.

Andrea Azuma, chair of the chapter's Sustainable Food Task Force, was among the speakers at a Feb. 15 press conference in front of Trader Joe's in Pasadena.

"Trader Joe's is a responsible business in some respects because it offers organic food and hormone-free milk products," Azuma said. "But it has organic food on the shelf next to its own brand of cornbread mix that contains genetically altered corn. Trader Joe's has the power to tell suppliers it doesn't want such products."

Aldi's, the European parent company for Trader Joe's, has pledged to carry only GE-free store brands. But Trader Joe's officials won't respond to environmental groups' request for a meeting.

Take Action

By April 3, tell the FDA to require pre-market safety testing and environmental studies and mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered foods. Urge the agency to keep these foods off the market in the meantime. Write Docket No. OON-1396 and Docket OOD-1598, FDA Commissioner, Dockets Management Branch (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.

Bipartisan Bills Target Gag Rule

by Jenny Coyle

Susana Galdos Silva traveled to Washington, D.C., from her home in Peru recently to spread the word about the dangers of President Bush's decision to reinstate the "global gag rule."

The rule, an executive order made by Bush his third day in office, denies even one dollar of $425 million in U.S. funding to family planning clinics in Peru and 51 other countries if they so much as discuss the option of abortion with their patients. The funding ban applies whether or not abortion is legal in a country, and whether or not a particular clinic provides abortions beyond discussing them.

Silva works with the Reproductive Health in the Community Project, an innovative program that supports Peruvian women's right to family planning and other essential reproductive services. The program receives U.S. funding.

But the global gag rule, Silva said, "is very discriminatory. It tells us that we in low-income countries cannot make and implement our own laws, nor make changes to them. Of course, I am unable even to stand here in your country - where you so value free speech - and discuss openly the reasons that high maternal mortality and unsafe abortion rates continue to impact so many Peruvian women. I do not want to endanger funding for the thousands of women our project is serving."

The global gag rule was first imposed by the Reagan administration in 1984. President Clinton rescinded this executive branch policy in 1993. President Bush reinstated it immediately upon taking office.

The ensuing outcry from the public - including the Sierra Club's Global Population and the Environment Program - led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to propose House and Senate bills to overturn the executive order.

The Global Democracy Promotion Act, H.R. 755, introduced in February by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) has 80 co-sponsors, including six Republicans. "The global gag rule presents non-governmental organizations with a dangerous choice," said Lowey. "If you want to participate in U.S. programs, you have to withhold vital information from patients."

The Senate version of the bill, S. 367, was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), with 19 co-sponsors. Among them is Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, who argues that strong family planning programs actually reduce the number of abortions. Bush's decision, she said, "is confounding to me."

In addition to health concerns and free-speech rights, the global gag rule is a threat to the environment, as Sierra Club activist George Klein made clear in his letter published in The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y. Klein is chair of the Atlantic (New York) Chapter's Lower Hudson Group.

"Because population growth exacerbates every environmental problem, it is intimately linked to all our efforts to protect the environment," he wrote. "By damaging family planning groups overseas whose work prevents unintended pregnancies, President Bush is both causing more abortions and placing more pressure on our fragile environment. Family planning saves women, children and our planet."

Take Action

Tell your senators and representative to overturn the global gag rule restriction imposed by President Bush, and support H.R. 755 and S. 367. Remind them that effective, unrestricted international family planning programs will encourage healthy families - and a healthy environment. See the "To Take Action" box on this page for contact information.

For More Information: Contact Laurie Mignone of the Sierra Club's Global Population and Environment Program,

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