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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought

Eater Beware!
If biotech food is so great, why isn't it labeled?

by Paul Rauber

In free-market theory, the customer is always right. In practice, consumer choice is indulged in small ways ("Barbeque, nacho-cheese, or salt-and-vinegar?") but discouraged whenever it runs counter to the food industry's interests. For example, the industry is still fighting mandatory labels on the irradiated meat products that may appear in supermarkets this summer. And despite overwhelming consumer demand for labeling genetically engineered foods (81 percent, according to a Time magazine poll), it still opposes giving shoppers the ability to choose.

Initially, food producers insisted that it would be too difficult for farmers to segregate genetically engineered foods. But then Frito-Lay and baby-food-makers Gerber and H. J. Heinz announced that they would use only traditional ingredients, and suddenly segregation was no big deal. In fact, the United States is now committed by treaty to do so, having agreed this January in Montreal to label exports of genetically engineered foods. Thus, U.S. manufacturers and foreign consumers will get labels, but U.S. consumers won't. 

Then the food industry claimed that labeling biotech foods would "confuse" consumers. Genetic engineering, it insists, is not really any different from traditional crossbreeding. Cross a peach and a plum and you get a nectarine; cross a tomato with DNA from a fish and you get a frost-resistant tomato. Who needs to know? Unfortunately for the industry, that argument also evaporated in Montreal. By agreeing to separate standards for genetically engineered foods, U.S. negotiators conceded that they were different-to everyone except U.S. shoppers.

This spring the Sierra Club and 50 other consumer and environmental groups filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, demanding the labeling of biotech food. Bills to require labeling have been introduced in the House (H.R. 3377) and the Senate (S. 2080), and are strenuously opposed by the biotech industry. Marion Nestle, chair of the Nutrition Department at New York University, calls this opposition "self-destructive" and "the single issue that has done most to undermine industry credibility in the public mind."

At least labeling is mandatory for irradiation, a process in which blasts of Cobalt-60 or electron beams kill potentially dangerous bacteria. The FDA requires that nuked foods be marked with a stylized flower called a "radura" and a statement such as "treated with radiation." After strenuous lobbying by industry, the FDA consented to reduce the size of the label, and the National Food Processors Association is now trying to replace the word radiation ("Few consumers express willingness to purchase foods with such a label statement") with "cold pasteurization."

Irradiated meat will probably first appear in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, where there are no labeling requirements and the industry can claim to be protecting vulnerable populations from pathogens like E. coli and salmonella. "They're using the excuse of food-borne disease," claims Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project, "but it's really about shelf life." Irradiated hamburger, she says, can last 35 days; strawberries, up to 3 weeks.

Critics fear that irradiation's promise to kill pathogens at the end of the packing process will encourage sloppiness before that point. This concern was reinforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's shift to a new meat-inspection system (simultaneous with its approval of irradiated meat) that will focus on random visits and eliminate 150 inspectors, saving the food industry $19 million a year. Already, says Public Citizen, processed chickens are exhibiting more visible fecal matter. "Americans don't want to eat fecal matter," notes Hauter, "even if the bacteria's dead."

Wal-Mart is expected to start selling irradiated meat this summer, at a premium of 5 to 15 cents a pound. It remains to be seen whether people are willing to pay extra for salmonella-free food when they thought they were getting it anyway. Meanwhile, in an effort to "increase consumer confidence," the FDA decreed in May that it would allow foods to be labeled as free of genetically engineered ingredients-although such labels may also be required to state that the FDA doesn't think it makes any difference. For now, if it makes a difference to you, the only label you can trust is the one that says "organic."

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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