by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Jul 13 2009

Whole Foods asks for GMO-Free verification

Whole Foods is asking its private label suppliers to prove that they are GM-free through a new verification system.   This seems like a really good idea.  Whole Foods knows that its customers do not want GM foods.  But as long as GM foods are not labeled, consumers have no choice.  All of this means that the FDA’s decision to forbid GM labeling was neither in the public interest (consumers have the right to know) nor in the interest of industry (companies want consumers to trust them).  The new certification system will give consumers a choice.

Jul 7 2009

Michael Taylor appointed to FDA: A good choice!

On Monday this week, Michael Taylor began his new job as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety.  He will be in charge of implementing whatever food safety laws Congress finally decides to pass.

I know that what I am about to say will surprise, if not shock, many of you, but I think he’s an excellent choice for this job. Yes, I know he worked for Monsanto, not only once (indirectly) but twice (directly). And yes, he’s the first person whose name is mentioned when anyone talks about the “revolving door” between the food industry and government. And yes, he signed off on the FDA’s consumer-unfriendly policies on labeling genetically modified foods.

But before you decide that I must have drunk the Kool Aid on this one, hear me out.  He really is a good choice for this job.  Why?  Because he managed to get USDA to institute HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) for meat and poultry against the full opposition of the meat industry — a truly heroic accomplishment.  His position on food safety has been strong and consistent for years.  He favors a single food agency, HACCP for all foods, and accountability and enforcement.  We need this for FDA-regulated foods (we also need enforcement for USDA-regulated foods, but he won’t be able to touch that unless Congress says so).  So he’s the person most likely to be able to get decent regulations in place and get them enforced.

I say this in full knowledge of his history.  In the 1990s, Mr. Taylor held positions in both FDA and USDA and his career in these agencies is complicated.  As I explained in my 2003 book, Safe Food  (see the endnotes for full documentation), Mr. Taylor began his career as a lawyer with the FDA. When he left the FDA, he went to work for King & Spalding, a law firm that represented Monsanto, the company that developed genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH), corn, and soybeans.

He revolved back to the FDA in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy, and he held that position during the time the agency approved Monsanto’s BGH. At the time of the review, he had been with FDA for more than two years. This made him exempt from newly passed conflict-of-interest guidelines that applied only to the first year of federal employment.  He also was a coauthor of the FDA’s 1992 policy statement on genetically engineered plant foods, and he signed the Federal Register notice stating that milk from cows treated with BGH did not have to be labeled as such.

For whatever it is worth, a 1999 lawsuit and GAO report revealed considerable disagreement about these decisions within FDA. These also revealed that Mr. Taylor had recused himself from matters related to Monsanto’s BGH and had “never sought to influence the thrust or content” of the agency’s policies on Monsanto’s products.  I can’t tell whether there were ethical breaches here or not, but there is little question that his work at FDA gave the appearance of conflict of interest, if nothing more.

But wait! Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action.  Whew.  This took real courage.

The amazing thing is that he actually made this work.  Now, HACCP rules apply more to USDA-regulated products than to FDA-regulated products. This new appointment gives Mr. Taylor the chance to bring FDA’s policies in line with USDA’s and even more, to make sure they are monitored and enforced.

In Safe Food, I summarize Mr. Taylor’s position on food safety regulation from 2002. Then, he argued for, among other things:

  • A single agency accountable for providing consistent and coordinated oversight of food safety, from farm to table.
  • Institution of Pathogen Reduction: HACCP, with performance standards verified by pathogen testing, at every step of food production.
  • Recall authority, access to records, and penalties for lapses in safety procedures.
  • Standards for imported foods equivalent to those for domestic foods.
  • Food safety to take precedence over commercial considerations in trade disputes.

Yes, he revolved back to Monsanto after leaving FDA but he didn’t stay long. He left Monsanto for Resources for the Future, a think tank on policy issues.   In 2007, he went to academia and joined the food policy think tank (see his bio) at George Washington University.  There, he produced the excellent food safety report I mentioned in a previous post, which repeats these points. This is about as good a position on food safety as can be expected of any federal official.

I wish him all the luck in the world in getting the safety of FDA-regulated foods under control. For those of you who are still dubious, how about giving him a chance to show what he can do?  But do keep the pressure on – hold his feet to the fire – so he knows he has plenty of support for doing the right thing.

[Posted from Skagway, Alaska, en route to Fairbanks]

Jul 6 2009

GM crops: up, up, and away

The USDA has just released the latest figures on planting of genetically modified soybeans, corn, and cotton in the United States.  GM varieties comprise 60-70% of all corn and cotton, and 90% of soybeans.  On this basis, if a food containing corn or soybeans is not labeled Certified Organic or GM-free, you should assume it is GM.

(posted from Scagway, en route to fairbanks)

Jul 2 2009

Feeding the world: an economic analysis

The Deutsche Bank and University of Wisconsin researchers have collaborated on a major investigation of what has to be done about agriculture to feed the world.  The report, which has lots of economic charts and diagrams, takes a tough look at resources and the environmental and climate-change consequences of agricultural practices.  It concludes that agriculture needs lots of money invested in fertilizers, irrigation, mechanization, farmer education, and land reclamation, and that both organic as biotechnological approaches will be needed to maximize production.  The facts and figures are worth perusing.  But what to do with them is always a matter of interpretation.  It will be interesting to see who uses the report and how, or whether it, like  most such reports, ends up in a dusty drawer.

Apr 20 2009

Does GM (genetic modification) increase crop yields?

The answer to this question depends on whom you ask.  If you ask the Union of Concerned Scientists, the answer is no. Just out is this group’s report, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops. Its conclusion: traditional genetic crosses outperform genetically modified crops by a wide margin.  Monsanto, as you might guess, has a rather different take on this issue, one that now faces a serious challenge.

Feb 20 2009

Biotech food industry shoots itself in foot – again!

As I argued in my book, Safe Food, in 2003, the big problem with genetically modified foods is not whether the foods are safe to eat.  Instead, the real problem is a matter of who controls the food supply.  To understand, for example, why GM foods are not labeled as such, it is useful to understand that the biotech food industry is secretive, agressive in defending its property rights and attacking critics, and relentless in protecting its corporate interests.  Today’s example: biotech food companies are not permitting independent research scientists to study the foods.  As reported in the New York Times, corporate control and secrecy have gotten so bad that a group of 26 corn-insect researchers has complained to the EPA that companies are not permitting them to grow GM crops for research purposes.  This, of course, makes questions about the environmental and human health risks unanswerable.

Biotech food companies complain bitterly about consumer distrust of their products.  The remedy is simple: label the foods and let independent researchers study their environmental and safety effects.

Feb 7 2009

And now, genetically engineered goats!

On Friday (of course), the FDA approved the first genetically modified goats. These have been bioengineered with a human gene that makes the anti-clotting protein, antithrombin. The goats excrete this protein into their milk (I hope their babies aren’t drinking this milk).   Antithrombin ordinarily has to be extracted from human plasma, an unreliable source.  This way, if more antithrombin is needed, the company that invented this scheme  (GTC Biotherapeutics) just milks more goats.  The FDA had previously approved doing things like this in theory, but this is the first practical application.  Some antithrombin with your goat cheese, anyone?

Jan 10 2009

GAO says oversight of GM crops could be better

The Government Accountability Office has just produced a report looking at the way the federal agencies regulate (or don’t regulate) genetically modified crops.  At issue is the escape of unauthorized modified genes into supposedly non-GM crops, animals, or the environment.  The report notes six such incidents.  These, it says, caused not harm to human or animal health but did result in “lost trade opportunities.”  The report documents long-standing gaps in coordination and direction among the three regulatory agencies involved: FDA, USDA, and EPA. If I count right, it’s been nearly 15 years since the FDA approved the first genetically modified food (bovine growth hormone, quickly followed by tomatoes) and the government still can’t figure out what to do about them.

It’s interesting that this report comes just as Monsanto is asking the FDA to approve the company’s new supposedly drought-tolerant.  If this corn really does what it is claimed to, it could fulfill what biotechnology companies have long promised.  We will have to wait and see on this one.

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