Concerned about genetically modified organisms (GMO's) in the food supply? Don't count on the FDA to help anytime soon. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration released proposed rules on bioengineered foods. The new rules neither improve safety testing for GMO foods nor do they require these foods be labeled. According to at least one consumer group, the new regulations represent a step backward because they lay the groundwork for the FDA to censure food manufacturers who wish to label their foods as "GMO free."
While disappointed, FDA's position is hardly surprising. Ever since their original determination in 1992 that bioengineered foods were essentially the same as other foods, the FDA consistently has refused to require that GMO foods be tested or labeled. This in spite of dissent from many of their own scientists who warned that genetic engineering entails a unique set of risks, including unexpectedly high concentrations of plant toxins and production of new substances which may cause allergic reactions.
Questions about the safety of bioengineered foods have been raised by an increasing number of independent scientists. Gary Kaplan, M.D. Ph.D., of New York University School of Medicine, neatly summarizes their concerns when he states, "Genetic engineering allows scientists to completely ignore the natural reproductive boundaries established over billions of years. Instead, DNA from completely unrelated organisms, like fish and strawberries, bacteria and soybeans, or humans and pigs, for example, can be intermingled.
"And what's worse, the technology itself is imprecise. Uncontrolled and random, it's like performing heart surgery with a shovel.
"When we insert genes that would not naturally be a part of a living organism, we should be prepared for a host of unexpected consequences, consequences for the organism being modified, the ecosystem of which that organism is a part, and for the people consuming that organism as food."
Probably the best that can be said about GMO foods is that nobody knows whether they are safe. By some estimates more than half of the processed food in this country already has some genetically engineered content. The only experiment being done on their safety is an uncontrolled one where you an I are the test subjects.
FDA's rules have yet to be finalized, so now is the time to register your opinion. There is also legislation in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, which would require labeling of GMO foods. Your cards, letters and phone calls to our congressional delegation and to the FDA can make a difference. Let them know that you want GMO foods to be labeled, so that you can decide yourself whether you want to eat them. Let them know that you would prefer not to be a guinea pig in the ongoing experiment on the safety of genetically engineered foods.
Genetically engineered foods represent a half-baked technology which has never been seriously scrutinized. The only reason it's gotten as far as it has is that the public has been kept in the dark about it. The time has come to expose GMO foods to the light of day through safety testing and labeling, but this is only going to happen if enough people demand it.
David Ottoson of Juneau owns Rainbow Foods and is a member of the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods (www.thecampaign.org).