by Marion Nestle
Jun 25 2012

The AMA’s strange position on GM foods: test but don’t label

Two queries from readers (see Feedback):

#1: I would love to hear your comments as to why you think the AMA came out in support of “not” labeling GMO foods. Do they have ties to big agriculture or biotech companies? How can they ask for safety testing and then not want the untested products already on the market not labeled? How can we as consumers monitor the effects of GMO’s if they’re not even label? Am I missing something here?

#2: I was also wondering why the American Medical Association would not support labeling genetically engineered foods. This just does not make sense to me. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you.

I can’t find the AMA statement online but I first read a report about it from Monica Eng in the Chicago Tribune.   Fortunately, Rosie Mestel reproduced much of the statement in her account in the Los Angeles Times.

Apparently, AMA delegates said they support mandatory FDA premarket safety assessments of GM foods “as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public.”  They also urge the FDA “to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods.”

The AMA says that policies on GM foods:

should continue to be science-based and guided by the characteristics of the plant or animal, its intended use, and the environment into which it is to be introduced, not by the method used to produce it, in order to facilitate comprehensive, efficient regulatory review.

And it says,

there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.

Mestel quotes a statement e-mailed to her from AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris:

The science-based labeling policies of the FDA do not support special product labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. The AMA adopted policy supporting this science-based approach, recognizing that there currently is no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods.

In the first chapter of my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, I explain what this is about.  I distinguish between two approaches to food hazards in general and to GM foods in particular.  These are:

  • Science-based.  Translation: if the food is safe, it is acceptable.  GM foods are presumed safe; therefore, they are acceptable and any criticism of them is irrational.
  • Value-based.  Translation: even if GM foods are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable for reasons of precaution, ethics, religion, culture, or concerns about corporate control of the food supply.  Science-based approaches are insufficient; they also need to address such concerns.

The two ways of looking at GM foods are so vastly different that it is hard to know where a compromise might exist.  If you have trouble believing this, take a look at the comments on my most recent post on GM foods.  These are classic examples of both positions.

The FDA took a strictly science-based approach when it approved GM foods in 1994.  The AMA is trying to do the same.

Here’s what surprises me: in recommending premarket safety testing, which is not now required, the AMA appears to be raising serious questions about the safety of GM foods.

If such doubts exist, shouldn’t GM foods be labeled so the public has a choice?

Many value-based concerns about GM foods could be alleviated if the products were labeled.  People who didn’t want to buy them wouldn’t have to.  Isn’t that what consumer choice is all about?

As I interpret what I’ve seen of the AMA statement, it provides further evidence for the need to label GM foods.

Other countries have no trouble labeling such foods.  We could too, and easily, as I have explained previously.

Update, June28: RosieMestel sends the complete AMA policy statement.

  • Ms. Nestle – Ever feel like you’re knocking your head against the wall? The answer is so obvious. This testing is so monotonous. Whether or not the answers come back to satisfy the scientists or doctors or corporations or the government one way or another, the PUBLIC feels a certain way — and obviously enough of us feel very strongly about it for a wide variety of reasons — whether it is food safety or just the right to choose.
    Eventually, I hope, things will reach a tipping point and companies will voluntarily label “non-GMO” as many already do. For now, getting the information out there remains the key.

    There are many ways for individuals to take part. Just supporting companies that label their products “non-GMO” is one. I have recently been invited to sit on a Political Action Committee for NOFA-NJ, which works to inform the public on such issues. Also, anyone can sign up on line for organizations such as Just Label It or Tipping Point and get involved, if they so choose.

    Thanks for keeping us informed!

    Michele Jacobson

  • The issues surrounding the use of GM are complicated, and not necessarily only related to food safety.

    Consider another story out today: that BT cotton is actually driving bollworms from cotton plants to other crops, and there’s been no diminishment in bollworm numbers. Because the pests have been driven to other crops, the farmers of these other crops have to increase their use of pesticide. (So much for the “using less pesticide” argument).

    The situation is made worse by the fact that the cotton farmers are no longer using the techniques they used to use to help control the pest.

    Making a choice not to purchase a GM product isn’t making a choice just based on one specific factor, such as food safety. It’s based on a host of factors. To make this choice, though, we need labeling.

    What we don’t need is the FDA and the AMA telling us we’re too stupid to know what we want.

  • BenE

    “premarket safety testing, which is not now required”

    This is not true. Any new transformation event requires safety testing. Once it has been approved, it can be backcrossed into other varieties of the same crop without further testing. How much testing would satisfy the anti-GMO crowd? For some, no amount of testing would be enough if Monsanto is involved in any way. That is not rational, that is prejudicial.

    “concerns about corporate control of the food supply”

    This is laughable. Do you only buy food from roadside stands? How do you think food gets from the farm to the grocery store? For that matter, what do you think a grocery store is, a corporation. What about all the corporate entities involved in shipping produce around the world? Or for that matter, the organic produce you buy that is becoming increasingly corporate controlled. Wanting to penalize farmers and everyone else in the food industry by requiring labeling just because you have a personal vendetta against Monsanto is ludicrous. Just avoid any food not labelled organic, and hope that Monsanto decides not to get involved in the organic industry.

  • Really interesting article, Shelley — it really is a domino effect and nature can’t be stopped. Thanks for posting it!

  • Peter W. Frok

    Ms Nestle doesn’t put it this simply, but it is obvious that some people have good, decent, human values, and other people value only money. I have these good decent human values and I want GMO foods labeled. Otherwise, I can only wonder “what are food corporations trying to hide through this corporate-policy-requested massive deception of the American population?”

  • “GM foods are presumed safe; therefore, they are acceptable and any criticism of them is irrational.”
    This is not a translation of “science-based.” Nor is it a correct assessment of what it means to base regulation off of safety issues. GE foods are not assumed to be safe, this judgement is arrived at by means of studying the properties of the modification, very often including feeding trials to determine equivalency – sometimes even long-term trials. Your translation is a false communication of this process.
    “Here’s what surprises me: in recommending premarket safety testing, which is not now required, the AMA appears to be raising serious questions about the safety of GM foods.”
    You are putting words in the AMA’s mouth. They did not anywhere indicate that the safety of GE foods was in question. They are stating their opinion that the safety testing should be mandatory, instead of the voluntary process that exists today. I should note that although the FDA consultation process is voluntary, every GE crop maker has gone through this process. The real key difference here is between the voluntary-yet-complied approval process, and making it mandatory.

    I do dearly wish that Marion Nestle would be as academic as she is about nutrition when she writes about genetic engineering in agriculture. I have come to trust her when it comes to many larger food issues, but whenever it comes to this topic she betrays a consistent misunderstanding of the process, results, regulations, and misrepresents the positions of others. Indeed, as she indicates she has read the comments on the other recent post about GE food, she must therefore know about my criticism of how she consistently ignores conflicts of interest from people or groups with whom she disagrees, while using COI to question or reject conclusions with which she disagrees. Why is that?

    Being more responsive to comments would also help, because these issues and errors can be addressed and corrected.

  • Correction: My comment above has a spelling error that changes the meaning of a sentence. The correct sentence should read:

    Indeed, as she indicates she has read the comments on the other recent post about GE food, she must therefore know about my criticism of how she consistently ignores conflicts of interest from people or groups with whom she agrees, while using COI to question or reject conclusions with which she disagrees.

  • “value based” just does not make sense, since values, unlike science, are not universal.

    What about if my religion forbids food touched by a woman, or by a gay. Would you approve a label with “This food has been touched by a woman” ? I don’t think so but, hey, it’s my religion and i must be respected, right?

    what if I think organic food is dangerous in general (here in Europe last year 52 people DIED from eating organic sprouts! Just imagine if they have died from GM crops!) so my “value-based” position is that I want organic food labeled with a “may contain toxic food”. Absurd? Why?

    As for “real” religions, there is NO label saying “this package contains non-kosher food” or halal, but you do have Halal or Kosher labeling: labels that “certificate” something that a customer is willing to pay more.

  • Russ

    Regulations regarding labeling GMO food are rather complicated with different groups having different agendas and beliefs but what surprises me is how little labeling there is from non-GMO products. If I were involved in the food industry and had a non-GMO product I would label it as such.

    Given the lack of voluntary non-GMO labeling, it leads me to believe that either 1) most food is GMO or 2) food producers don’t see enough demand for non-GMO food to justify the added cost of redesigning labels.

    As a consumer I have no idea how many of the things I eat each day contain some form of GMO and that bothers me.

  • Jason Greene

    So, what about all of the GMOs on the market now that have not undergone “mandatory FDA premarket safety assessments” ? The science experiment continues until we label genetically engineered ingredients in our food.

  • Mary

    Can you give me examples of current value-based federal mandatory labels? And some regulatory background on them–how it came about, and the legal details?

  • my veterinari. Cindy

    I used to raise goats beginning in the late 90’s. The first 4 years, I had wonderful results. Never lost a baby or a mama. Then, around 2003, I was enouraged by my feed dealer to try a new feed, which I have since figured out contained genetically modified corn and soy in it. At the time, no one had a clue about the dangers of GMO’s. Anyway, that is when my troubles began. I started having difficult births, and losing some of the mamas and kids. Then the deformities began. Legs going the wrong direction, Shortened necks, spinal curvatures, etc. Kidding season bcame something out of a science fiction movie. So much so, my young daughter, who was my partner quit on me. She couldn’t handle it What was once a joy to behold had become a nightmare. After a couple of years and things getting worse and worse, and when even my veterinarian had no answers, I quit, too. You will never convince me they are safe for anyone or any animal to consume. Corporations have bought up all of our rights.

  • Jan Woods

    GMOs are dead in the water. Their time came, and is swiftly passing. Farmers are coming forward with information of deformities in animals fed with GMO, with stories of super pests and super bugs that will call for ungodly amounts of pesticides now to deal with–so much for the “GMO will use fewer pesticides” argument.

    People are–rightly–grossed out by the thought of eating GMO “foods.” The big ag corps need to get this: they backed the wrong billion dollar horse and they are going to have to eat it.

    50 countries world-wide have labeling, including India, China, Peru, Hungary, Russia and most of Europe. The only reason we don’t have it in the US –90% of citizens want labeling–is that our so-called government sold us out and kept us in the dark while pocketing money from big ag.

    Here’s the challenge: the USA is the last big market for GMO foods–because we are the last in the world to catch on to the lovely science experiment we have unwittingly been made a part of. So Monsanto and friends are going to fight us tooth and nail to keep us in the dark and label-less, at least until they find a way to dump their poison “food” somewhere else, like Africa maybe. Oh yeah, they’ve already tried that. No where in Africa wants it either.

  • GMOs are just “weapons of mass destruction”…..and thank God we have people who still have functioning brains like Dr. Nestle…perhaps it is the result of avoiding such weapons….Easy task for those of us who refuse to buy foods from a bodega or supermarket…less expensive too!!! a decent health insurance and a peace of mind!

  • Jan Woods

    @ Dario: Science isn’t value-free. Science is currently very often bought and paid for. Studies can and have been twisted many times to prove/disprove whatever big money wants it to say.

    Remember when all the scientists and doctors were saying cigarettes did not cause cancer. Uh-huh.

  • Anthro

    I am conflicted on this, once again. I am all for the public making a choice, but hopefully an INFORMED choice (University of Google doesn’t count). Most people who are against GMO have irrational fears about the safety of food made from it. They get these views from all sorts of sources, hardly any of which are science-based. They also conflate Monsanto, et al, with the technology of GM, which also isn’t rational. They cherry pick the evidence to support their “values”, which may sound science-y, but isn’t real science.

    I’m not entirely opposed to labeling and am somewhat persuaded by Marion’s “values” arguments, but I just naturally squirm when science is asked to acquiesce to irrational prejudice. If anyone has hard data from peer-reviewed sources that GMO food is harmful, in any way, I’d appreciate a link. (Brief newspaper articles with no citations do not count.)

    If we base regulation on “values”, well–where would it end? On the other hand, I remember being really annoyed during the rBST controversy when the FDA made the statement about rBST-treated cows milk being nutritionally equivalent to non-treated. Well, I never said it was about nutrition, did I? My point was the cows being used in this way and the damage to the small dairy farmer!

  • Wayne Meyer

    If there are ‘no material differences’ why are GMO seeds patented?

  • Jan Woods

    @anthro: and anyone else on this site commenting who genuinely wants information as to the safety of GMO foods–. LINK:

    title of report: GMO Myths and Truths, by Michael Antiniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan.

    Marion Nestle’s has a link to the site (see above) When you get there just click on “view the report.”

  • Samatha Diamond

    The biotch companies and the FDA only did comparative studies on GMOs, i.e.-how similar is this regular corn to bt-corn. So in essences, yes, we are like a giant research study because studies in humans have not been done. Some animal studies have been done with some scary findings. If you want more reserch check out this blog entry from Marion which links to an article reviewing the myths and facts about GMOs.
    The bottom line is if they are so great then label the foods so people can choose for themselves. And let people get the seeds to study them. An LA Times op-ed was written by a scientist who could not get the seeds to study them. Lots of shady stuff from these companies so of course people have zero trust for them. The told us DDT was safe too, sprayed us with it in the 50’s, and now it is linked with cancer etc. And the AMA, wasn’t it 50 year ago they vigorously endorsed cigarettes? Not the groups I go to for answers to my questions about preventive health!

  • On the upcoming November 6 ballot, California voters will have an opportunity to vote YES to mandate labeling of Genetically Engineered foods in California. The implications are significant. Although we can’t predict the resulting outcome of consumer behavior, we believe labeling Genetically Engineered foods in California will eventually lead to a reduction in the demand of Genetically Engineered ingredients by food manufactures throughout the United States. Efforts to legislate labeling for Genetically Modified food has recently failed in the Senant and the FDA continues to ignore demands for labeling. The California ballot initiative is now the front line of this fight.

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    Please visit to register your endorsement and indicate any marketing support you would like to extend to help us with our effort to communicate the truth about labeling Genetically Modified food to California voters.

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