The question of whether food derived from genetically modified (GM) crops should be labeled has been a topic of intense debate. Several states, including Hawai'i, having introduced legislation related to it. In trying to understand such a complex subject, it is vital to promote informed discussion and decision-making.
In search of labeling information, the Maui Weekly went to the Economic Development Alliance of Hawai'i (EDAH) for answers to the most frequently asked questions about GM food labeling. EDAH is a consortium of economic development boards: Enterprise Honolulu; Hawai'i Island Economic Development Board; Kaua'i Economic Development Board; Maui Economic Development Board; and representation from business, academic and financial institutions.
EDAH has not taken a position on mandatory labeling of GM foods.
Maui visitors Aric Agresti and daughter Giuliana shop for produce at Safeway in Kihei. “Prices are most important to our family of four,” said Agresti. “So, we will buy organic when available. However, we are not vested in it. On the other hand, we do try to stay away from processed foods.”
Photo: Cindy Schumacher
To begin, it is crucial to know that consumers interested in non-GM foods can choose foods labeled as organic under the U.S. National Organic Program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA label is the legal definition of organic certification in the U.S.
The word organic is central to the certification and organic food marketing process. Where organic laws exist, producers cannot use the term legally without official recognition. Certification requirements involve a rigorous set of production standards for growing, storing, processing, packaging and shipping.
Below are some of the most significant questions that EDAH has addressed in regard to GM foods.
Q: What are genetically modified foods?
EDAH: The USDA defines agricultural biotechnology as a range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products, improve plants or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses.
Q: What is food labeling?
EDAH: Food labeling refers to written, printed or graphic matter on or accompanying food items, including their containers or wrappers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring that domestic and imported foods sold in the U.S. are safe, wholesome and properly labeled.
Q: Who oversees GM food labeling in the U.S.?
EDAH: Under the 1986 Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, genetically modified foods are regulated by three federal agencies--the USDA, FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Products are regulated according to their intended use, and all three agencies are responsible for ensuring that the implementation of regulatory decisions, including approval of field tests and eventual deregulation of approved biotech crops, does not adversely impact human health or the environment.
Q: Is there a federal requirement for labeling GM foods?
EDAH: No, the Federal government does not currently mandate labeling of foods as being genetically modified or containing GM ingredients. Foods and food ingredients developed through bioengineering must adhere to the same safety and labeling standards as their conventionally bred counterparts.
Q: When does the FDA make an exception in labeling?
EDAH: In some cases, the FDA does require labeling of GM foods if the food has a nutritional property significantly different from its non-GM counterpart. For example, if a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present, such as peanut protein in a soybean product, labeling would be required.
Q: Why does the FDA not mandate GM food labeling?
EDAH: The FDA views genetic engineering as one of multiple techniques available for developing new plant varieties, and focuses on the traits and characteristics of the food itself. The FDA sees no significant difference between GM foods and their conventional counterparts and has determined that the GM foods in the marketplace are as safe as their conventional counterparts.
Q: What GM crops are currently approved by the USDA and EPA in the U.S.?
EDAH: Some of the GM crops currently approved in the U.S. include corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa and sugar beets.
Q: What percent of our foods in grocery stores are genetically modified?
EDAH: It's estimated that 60 to 70 percent of processed foods include at least one genetically engineered ingredient.
Q: Who would label GM products?
EDAH: Hypothetically, the responsibility could fall upon farmers, food manufacturers and suppliers, restaurants, grocery stores, other food sellers or a combination of parties.
Q: Hawai'i imports the majority of its food supply from the Mainland. Would Hawai'i lose products because of mandatory labeling?
EDAH: The answer is not clear. Some proponents have argued that labeling will increase consumer choice, while opponents have said consumer options will decline. One study concluded that the high cost of segregating GM products for the purpose of labeling could benefit the organic sector, but drive conventional products out of the market to the detriment of consumer welfare. Another report stated that, in the European Union, "companies resorted to substituting ingredients to avoid the label, using lower quality and or higher priced inputs."
In summary, government-mandated label information relates to composition or food attributes, not to agricultural or manufacturing practices. Biotech foods are the most studied and thoroughly regulated food crops in the world. Prior to being planted on farms, they are extensively tested and reviewed for safety by the USDA, EPA, Europe's EFSA and numerous other organizations around the world. Even so, many products are already voluntarily labeled.