No Mandatory Food Labeling . . . Yet

Published July 1, 2000

New regulations issued by the Clinton-Gore administration would require biotechnology companies to notify the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) four months in advance of marketing a new genetically modified food. The regulations do not require labeling of such foods.

In their May 3 announcement of the plan, administration officials explained they “intended to build consumer confidence [and] ensure that regulations keep pace with the latest scientific and market developments.” The proposals “will facilitate voluntary efforts by producers to differentiate non-bio-engineered commodities through the development of accurate and reliable testing.”

Criticism of the new regulations came from all sides. Environmental groups, such as the Center for Food Safety, as well as the American Corn Growers Association, are displeased the new rules do not require mandatory food labeling.

“Until the consumer feels confident in the safety of genetically modified foods, they will continue to refuse to purchase them. Mandatory labeling would have shown these consumers that the food production and processing industry has nothing to hide. Whether for the right or wrong reasons, mandatory labels would have, at the very least, instilled consumer confidence in the U.S. food production system,” said Gary Goldberg, chief executive officer of the American Corn Growers Association.

Critics also charge the new rules do not require independent testing of new products, nor do they require long-term animal and human testing, as is required by pharmaceutical companies before a new drug is introduced. “Consultations are not the same as unbiased, rigorous pre-market safety testing,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.

Added Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), “The voluntary labeling guidelines under consideration would be a hollow step because the decision to label is left up to the manufacturers, most of whom have already chosen not to label.”

Also included in the administration’s plan are efforts to make public the information submitted to regulators by biotechnology companies; a six- month assessment and recommendations for improvement of current regulations by the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and development of voluntary food labels.

Toward the goal of voluntary food labeling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will begin work with laboratories to evaluate test methods used to determine the presence of genetically modified grains.

Carl Feldman, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, was supportive of the Clinton plan. “The biotechnology industry supports the decision of the Food and Drug Administration to make the approval process for foods improved through biotechnology more transparent, and to also provide more guidance to the food industry with regard to voluntary claims on food labels.”

At the request of the USDA, the National Research Council has established a new standing committee on Biotechnology, Food and Fiber Production, and the Environment. The committee will advise the department on how well its regulatory agencies are fulfilling their reponsibility for ensuring the safety of bio-engineered plants.

Rich Rominger, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, said recently before the committee’s first meeting, “Many biotechnology critics rightly or wrongly want the government to certify that new products are zero-risk before they come to the marketplace. Unfortunately, this isn’t a zero-risk world. Even traditional farming practices and traditional ways are not without risks, and they only increase as world population grows.”