Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Apr 2 2013

Retailers and the GM salmon problem

A coalition of consumer, health, food safety and fishing groups behind the “Campaign for Genetically Engineered (GE)-Free Seafood” is recruiting grocery store chains to agree not to sell genetically engineered seafood even if the FDA allows it to be sold.  The campaign is aimed at the genetically modified AquaBounty salmon, which the FDA has had under consideration for ages, with no decision in sight.

The stores that have pledged not to sell GM salmon include Trader Joe’s (367 stores), Aldi (1,230 stores), Whole Foods (346 stores in U.S.), Marsh Supermarkets (93 stores in Indiana and Ohio), and PCC Natural Markets (9 stores in Washington State) and co-ops in Minnesota, New York, California, and Kansas.

This is a big deal because other GM seafood are in the research pipeline.  Large percentages of Americans say they oppose GM seafood and that the FDA should not allow it to be marketed.

And if the FDA does approve it, the agency is highly unlikely to require any special kind of labeling.

This reminds me of what happened to genetically modified tomato paste in the U.K.  Supermarket chains were selling the cans with labels clearly indicating that they were “produced from genetically modified tomatoes.”  The stores priced them favorably, and customers bought them — until Monsanto shipped unlabeled corn to Great Britain and caused a furor.

Retailers decided that they had plenty of tomato paste, didn’t need upset customers, and refused to continue selling the GM varieties.

Retailers call the shots in this situation.

I think much of the public distress over GM foods is because of lack of transparency.  Without labels, customers cannot exercise freedom of choice.

Just label it!

 

Feb 1 2013

Wonder of wonders: food companies favor GMO labels!

Stephanie Strom reports in today’s New York Times that a group of food companies—among them several that put millions of dollars into opposing California’s Proposition 37 last November—are now favoring labeling of genetically modified foods.

Those companies won the election; Proposition 37 lost, although not by a very wide margin.   

But in the process, two things happened: they lost credibility, and they created a movement for GMO labeling initiatives in other states.

Advocates for GMO labeling figured out that although Big Food and Big Soda were willing to invest $40 million to defeat the California labeling initiative, they might hesitate if confronted with initiatives in many other states.

Good thinking.  Ms. Strom reports the previously unthinkable:

Some of the major food companies and Wal-Mart, the country’s largest grocery store operator, have been discussing lobbying for a national labeling program.

Executives from PepsiCo, ConAgra and about 20 other major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart and advocacy groups that favor labeling, attended a meeting in January in Washington convened by the Meridian Institute, which organizes discussions of major issues.

…“They spent an awful lot of money in California — talk about a lack of return on investment,” said Gary Hirshberg, co-chairman of the Just Label It campaign, which advocates national labeling, and chairman of Stonyfield, an organic dairy company.

…Mr. Hirshberg said some company representatives wanted to find ways to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to proceed with federal labeling.

I have to say that I never thought I’d live to see this happen.  I was one of four consumer representatives to the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in the early 1990s when the FDA was considering approval of GMOs and whether or not to require them to be labeled.

We warned the FDA that if GMOs were not labeled, the public would wonder what the industry was trying to hide.  This, we said, would not only hurt the FDA’s credibility, but would end up hurting the GMO industry as well.

As I discuss in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the FDA’s main arguments at the time were that (a) it would be misleading to label GMOs because they were no different from foods produced through traditional genetic crosses, and (b) the process by which foods are produced is not material.

Even then, it was evident that argument (b) made no sense.  The FDA already permitted foods to be labeled as Made from Concentrate, Previously Frozen, Irradiated, and, later, Organic.

As I’ve discussed previously, GMO labeling is no big deal.  All the label needs to say is “May be made from genetically modified corn, soy, or sugar,” as Hershey’s does in Great Britain.

Let’s hope the FDA takes notice.

 

Jan 10 2013

Predictions for 2013 in food politics

For my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I devote the one in January every year to predictions.  Last year I got them all pretty much on target.  It didn’t take much genius to figure out that election-year politics would bring things to a standstill.  This year’s column was much harder to do, not least because the FDA was releasing blocked initiatives right up to the printing deadline.

 Q: I just looked at your 2012 crystal ball column. Your predictions were spot on. But what about 2013? Any possibility for good news in food politics?

A: Food issues are invariably controversial and anyone could see that nothing would get done about them during an election year. With the election over, the big question is whether and when the stalled actions will be released.

The Food and Drug Administration has already unblocked one pending decision. In December, it released the draft environmental assessment on genetically modified salmon – dated May 4, 2012. Here comes my first prediction:

The FDA will approve production of genetically modified salmon: Because these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama with safeguards against escape, the FDA finds they have no environmental impact on the United States. The decision is now open for public comment. Unless responses force the FDA to seek further delays, expect to see genetically modified salmon in production by the end of the year.

Pressures to label genetically modified foods will increase: If approval of the genetically modified salmon does nothing else, it will intensify efforts to push states and the FDA to require GM labeling.

Whatever Congress does with the farm bill will reflect no fundamental change in policy: Unwilling to stand up to Southern farm lobbies, Congress extended the worst parts of the 2008 farm bill until September. Don’t count on this Congress to do what’s most needed in 2013: restructure agricultural policy to promote health and sustainability.

The FDA will start the formal rule-making process for more effective food safety regulations: President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011. Two years later, despite the FDA’s best efforts, its regulations – held up by the White House – have just been released for public comment. Lives are at stake on this one.

The FDA will issue rules for menu labels: The Affordable Care Act of 2010 required calorie information to be posted by fast-food and chain restaurants and vending machines. The FDA’s draft applied to foods served by movie theaters, lunch wagons, bowling alleys, trains and airlines, but lobbying led the FDA to propose rules that no longer covered those venues. Will its final rules at least apply to movie theaters? Fingers crossed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay issuing nutrition standards for competitive foods: When the USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals in January 2012, the rules elicited unexpected levels of opposition. Congress intervened and forced the tomato sauce on pizza to count as a vegetable serving. The USDA, reeling, agreed to give schools greater flexibility. Still to come are nutrition standards for snacks and sodas sold in competition with school meals. Unhappy prediction: an uproar from food companies defending their “right” to sell junk foods to kids in schools and more congressional micromanagement.

The FDA will delay revising food labels: Late in 2009, the FDA began research on the understanding of food labels and listed more relevant labels as a goal in its strategic plan for 2012-16. Although the Institute of Medicine produced two reports on how to deal with front-of-package labeling and advised the FDA to allow only four items – calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – in such labels, food companies jumped the gun. They started using Facts Up Front labels that include “good” nutrients as well as “bad.”

Will the FDA insist on labels that actually help consumers make better choices? Will it require added sugars to be listed, define “natural” or clarify rules for whole-grain claims? I’m not holding my breath.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits: Demands on Snap – food stamps – reached record levels in 2012 and show no sign of decline. Antihunger advocates will be working hard to retain the program’s benefits, while antiobesity advocates work to transform the benefits to promote purchases of healthier foods. My dream: The groups will join forces to do both.

Sugar-sweetened beverages will continue to be the flash point for efforts to counter childhood obesity: The defeat of soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte (Los Angeles County) will inspire other communities to try their own versions of soda tax and size-cap initiatives. As research increasingly links sugary drinks to poor diets and health, soda companies will find it difficult to oppose such initiatives.

Grassroots efforts will have greater impact: Because so little progress can be expected from government these days, I’m predicting bigger and noisier grassroots efforts to create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet. Much work needs to be done. This is the year to do it.

And a personal note: In 2013, I’m looking forward to publication of the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics” and, in September, my new editorial cartoon book with Rodale Press: “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

Jan 8 2013

A Man. A Plan. Panamá!

On vacation in Panamá, I found few visible signs of food politics.

I had asked to visit the mountain site where genetically modified salmon are being raised in the mountains (see previous post).  Not a chance.

This made me even more curious.  I conducted an informal survey of every educated Panamanian I met:

  • Are you aware that genetically modified salmon are being raised in your country?
  • Do you care?

The answers: No and No.

I found only two exceptions: (1) a government official impressed by what he told me were five levels of security to make sure the fish don’t escape, and (2) an associate of the soon-to-open biodiversity museum (designed by Frank Gehry) who hoped that the museum could be a forum for such issues.

Both confirmed that the newspapers said nothing about GM salmon and that few people knew about them.

A chef’s reaction: Panamanian salmon!  He couldn’t wait to get some.

But I did see this Christmas display along the Avenida Balboa.

The Coca-Cola banner also says Alcaldía de Panamá: trabajando para ti (Mayor of Panamá City: working for you).

Happy new year!  Happy to be back.

Dec 26 2012

The hazards of GM foods: patent protection and international relations

Writing in Slate, Fred Kaufman takes a fresh look at the controversies over genetically modified (GM) foods.  Forget the other issues, he says.   Pay attention to patents:

GM foods’ effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear. Some GM foods may be healthy, others not; every genetic modification is different. But every GM food becomes dangerous—not to health, but to society—when it can be patented. Right now, the driving force behind the development of new genetic crop modifications is the fact that they possess the potential to be enormously profitable….

That brings me to the GM salmon, in particular AquAdvantage brand engineered to grow faster and bigger than wild salmon.

Last Friday (always a good time to release something controversial), the FDA let loose its draft environmental assessment on the GM salmon.  The draft finding of “no effect” is now open for comment.

I find the draft statement remarkable for two reasons.

  • It is dated May 4, 2012, suggesting that it was considered too political to release before the election.
  • It applies only to production of GM salmon outside the United States.

The FDA had already ruled that the salmon are safe to eat:

With respect to food safety, FDA has concluded that food from AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from triploid AquAdvantage Salmon. Further, FDA has concluded that no significant food safety hazards or risks have been identified with respect to the phenotype of the AquAdvantage Salmon.

With respect to environmental impact, the FDA says:

FDA preliminarily concludes that the development, production, and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon under the conditions proposed in the materials submitted by the sponsor in support of an NADA [New Animal Drug Application], and as described in this draft EA [Environmental Assessment], will not result in significant effects on the quality of the human environment in the United States.

AquAdvantage is not intended to be grown in the United States.  It is being raised on Prince Edward Island in Canada and in Panama and will be processed in Panama.

Under the proposed action, AquAdvantage Salmon would not be produced or grown in the United States, or in net pens or cages, and no live fish would be imported for processing.

…As the proposed action would only allow production and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon at facilities outside of the United States, the areas of the local surrounding environments that are most likely to be affected by the action lie largely within the sovereign authority of other countries (i.e., Canada and Panama).

Because NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] does not require an analysis of environmental effects in foreign sovereign countries, effects on the local environments of Canada and Panama have not been considered and evaluated in this draft EA except insofar as it was necessary to do so in order to determine whether there would be significant effects on the environment of the United States….

In addition, social, economic and cultural effects of the proposed action on the United States have not been analyzed and evaluated because the analysis in this draft EA preliminarily indicates that the proposed action will not significantly affect the physical environment of the United States.

If I am getting this right, the FDA is saying that since the salmon is being raised elsewhere, it’s OK to produce it.

This report is generally interpreted as opening the door to marketing of GM salmon within the United States, and soon.

Will it be labeled as such?  I suppose that too is up to Canada and Panama.

Revisit patent protection anyone?

Nov 9 2012

Proposition 37 take-home lesson: the power of money in politics

The take-home lesson from the defeat of Proposition 37—GMO labeling—is crystal clear.

As Tom Philpott explains in his Mother Jones post,

No fewer than two massive sectors of the established food economy saw it as a threat: the GMO seed/agrichemical industry, led by giant companies Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and Bayer; and the food-processing/junk-food industries who transform GMO crops into profitable products, led by Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and their ilk. Collectively, these companies represent billions in annual profits; and they perceived a material threat to their bottom lines in the labeling requirement, as evidenced by the gusher of cash they poured into defeating it.

The proof lies in this remarkable graph of poll results produced by Pepperdine University/California Business Roundtable.  Polling results started to shift only after the October 1 start of the “No on 37″ television ad campaign.

Philpott and others see this defeat as just the beginning of a strong increase in public concern about the role of money in politics.

As for labeling of GMOs:  As I’ve said before, proposition 37 deserved support, and GMOs should be labeled.

In a way, it’s hard to understand why the industry thinks it is justified to put $46 million ($46 million!) into defeating a labeling initiative.   The world has not come to an end.

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In response to European public pressure, McDonald’s, another American company, produces its products without GMOs.

Demands for GMO labeling are not going to go away.

The heavy-handed industry campaign against labeling ought to have some consequences.  One is likely to be increasing support for efforts to Just Label It.

Addition:

I’ve just seen the tough analysis by Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island Journal:

As far as I can tell, the Prop 37 campaign failed to put together a field campaign capable of countering the flood of deceptive ads broadcast by the No campaign…

I don’t understand why the Prop 37 campaigners tried to fight on the airwaves in the first place. From Moment One they knew they would be hugely outspent on TV, radio and web ads…

When you’re the underdog, you don’t go toe-to-toe with the big guy. You have to resort to asymmetrical warfare, guerilla warfare. In electoral politics, that means prioritizing the ground war(organizers and activists) over the air war (paid advertisements)…

the good food movement needs to recommit itself to building power through old-fashioned, Saul Alinsky style organizing.

Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define “natural”
  • Clarify “whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
Nov 5 2012

Tuesday: Vote with your vote!

Tuesday’s election has huge implications for food politics (see previous post).  I’ve been asked to state an opinion.  In case myviews are not obvious, here’s what I’m voting for and hoping you will too:

  • If you care abou the issues discusssed here: Vote to reelect President Obama.
  • If you live in California, lead the nation: Vote YES on 37 (GMO labels).
  • If you live in Richmond, CA: Vote YES on Measures N and O (soda taxes and where that money will go).
  • If you live in El Monte, CA: Vote YES on Measure H (soda taxes).

It’s great to vote with your fork.  But the food movement needs real votes.

Vote with your vote!

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