Food Fight: Public Interest Groups Challenge CSPI Position on GMOs

A fight between public interest groups that has been simmering under the surface for years has busted out into public view.

Michele Simon of Eat, Drink Politics and Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety posted an article yesterday titled Why Center for Science in the Public Interest is Wrong Not to Support Genetically Engineered Food Labeling.

“The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), often seen as a leader in nutrition policy, stands virtually alone in its continued opposition to labeling GE foods,” Simon and Kimbrell write. “This stance is troubling and confusing given how outspoken CSPI has been for decades on food labeling and consumer information.”

Simon and Kimbrell take on three key CSPI claims.

CSPI claims that genetically engineered food labeling is “not a food safety or a nutritional issue – it’s not like allergens or trans fats.”

“This is a pretty bold statement to make given how little information is available on the safety of GE foods,” Simon and Kimbrell write.

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require or conduct safety studies on GE foods, nor does it approve GE foods as safe. Instead, there is only confidential consultation between industry and FDA, where GE food developers decide what summary information to provide the agency; and even that is voluntary. So we are essentially taking the biotech industry’s word that GE food is not hazardous. CSPI itself acknowledges that the government isn’t doing its job, calling on FDA to ‘require a mandatory pre-market approval process’ and ‘formally approve that the crop is safe for human and animal consumption.’ How can CSPI on the one hand admit we need more rigorous oversight, while on the other claim there is no safety issue?”

The second CSPI claim is that “the great majority of foods that contain highly purified oils, corn sugars and corn starch ingredients made from GE crops contain essentially no genetically modified DNA or protein.”

“CSPI’s cleverly worded statement applies to a minority of foods, mainly sodas containing high-fructose corn syrup, as well as corn and soybean oil,” Simon and Kimbrell write. “But it excludes those foods most likely to have substantial amounts of GE ingredients: corn-based cereals, tortillas, tacos, corn chips, corn flour, corn grits, etc. For example, an important report called ‘Cereal Crimes’ from the Cornucopia Institute in 2011 listed several cereal brands (labeled ‘natural’) that tested positive for high levels of GE ingredients, “sometimes as high as 100%.” Those products included well-known brands such as Kellogg-owned Kashi’s GoLean and General Mills’ Kix, a children’s cereal.”

CSPI’s third claims is that “non-GMO label claims are misleading, since they falsely imply that food made without GE ingredients is safer or superior in some other way.”

“But it is no more misleading to label a food as non-GMO than it is to label ‘orange juice from concentrate,’” Simon and Kimbrell write. “Neither statement is about safety. These are strictly factual and non-controversial disclosures. (Same is true for a label disclosing that a food or ingredient is genetically engineered.) Far from misleading consumers, such a label would empower those who want GE foods to purchase them, and enable others to avoid them. If anything is misleading, it’s the lack of mandatory labeling of GE foods. CSPI again entirely misses the point that food labeling is not only about safety or being superior, but about informed choice.”

We asked CSPI’s executive director Michael Jacobson to respond to Simon and Kimbrell’s article — and we asked Simon to respond to Jacobson.

Jacobson: “Genetic engineering should be treated like other technologies, from cell phones to cars to hybrid corn — maximize the benefits and minimize the risks.”

Simon: “These other technologies have benefits, while to date GE technology has not demonstrated any.”

Jacobson: “When it comes to human health, too many people are looking for a biotech boogeyman under the stairs when, in fact, it’s the foods in plain sight that are actually killing tens of thousands of people annually–things like the trans fat in partially hydrogenated oil and too much sugar and sodium.”

Simon: “No is denying that other problems exist with junk food, why must this be an either/or discussion?”

Jacobson: “It is true there are significant environmental concerns about some GE crops, but there are far bigger problems out on the farm — monocultures, lack of crop rotation, pesticide use, overuse of chemical fertilizers, antibiotics–that are not addressed through on-package labeling.”

Simon: “It’s a specious argument as all of these problems – the result of industrialized agriculture — are tied together. Pesticide use is tied to GE technology for example.”

Jacobson: “Killing agricultural biotechnology — the aim of many proponents of mandatory labeling — because of hypothetical risks is analogous to doing away with electricity because of the harms it has led to.  Ag biotech is already providing real benefits — and should yield many more in the future — that should be reaped, while regulation and stronger enforcement should prevent the real environmental problems that have occurred.”

Simon: “Show me some evidence of ‘real benefits,’ not funded by the biotech industry. It also ignores the plight of many farmers who are beholden to seed companies.”

In their article, Simon and Kimbrell chastise CSPI for being “out of step with democracy.”

“CSPI is in a dwindling minority in its position,” Simon and Kimbrell wrote. “Numerous polls indicate that Americans want GE food labeling, with most results topping 90 percent. What other issue can you get 90 percent of Americans to agree upon? Last fall, six million Californians voted for GE food labels, despite a $45 million campaign of lies and dirty tricks to stop Proposition 37 from passing, just narrowly.”

“Moreover, 1.2 million people have now endorsed a Center for Food Safety legal petition from 2011 demanding FDA require the labeling of GE food. In addition, 64 other nations already require GE labels, including Japan, Australia, Brazil, China, Russia, and the entire European Union. It is only a matter of time before we see required labeling of genetically engineered food in the U.S. Meanwhile, having an organization such as CSPI speak out against GE food labeling is counterproductive. We hope they soon join the growing chorus of voices and support our right to know.”

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