WASHINGTON – By almost any measure, the U.S. system that judges the safety and effectiveness of genetically modified organisms is out of date.
Despite the fact that the organisms — known as GMOs — now pervade most of the food chain, the last time the federal government offered a formal interagency plan for evaluating them was 1992.
So experts like University of Minnesota food safety Prof. Ted Labuza say the Obama administration’s new initiative to update GMO regulation is long overdue.
They also say new rules could be a long time coming even though the Obama administration has asked for them within a year.
“It took 20 years for [the government] to call salmonella a pathogen,” Labuza said. “This is even more controversial.”
The food industry and the pesticide producers who support them have had their way with regulators for decades, according to Labuza.
There is no mandatory system for evaluating GMOs, he explained. There is only something called “voluntary consultation” that lets private companies choose if they want to submit new biotechnology products to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for government regulators to review.
“How crazy is it that you let industry do their own tests and the FDA sends a letter that says, ‘We’ve seen your data, you’ve said that these foods are safe so we are accepting the fact that you say they’re safe?’ ” asked Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association. “I mean that’s the protocol now.”
If the White House-ordered update suggests making things more restrictive, it will almost surely provoke pushback by one of the capital’s most powerful lobbies, Labuza predicted.
“Big biotech hates this,” he said.
Yet the current system, which involves coordination between the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has become so archaic that at least one giant agribusiness, Minnetonka-based Cargill, seems ready to come onboard with changes.
“Generally, we believe that U.S. biotechnology regulations need to be modernized to catch up with the technology,” Randal Giroux, Cargill’s vice president for food safety and quality, told the Star Tribune. “We’d like to see an enhanced safety assessment.”
Cargill strongly supports genetically modified foods and believes they are safe. The company opposes mandatory GMO food labeling and wants the government to consider the ability to market food, as well as science in its upcoming review. But because so much of its business is international, Cargill wants U.S. GMO safety and effectiveness standards to “harmonize” with major U.S. foreign trading partners. Cargill, said Giroux, favors the “integration of biotechnology into the global food system.”
Giroux pointed to the CODEX Alimentarius international food standards commission as a model of where U.S. policy might go.
The CODEX GMO safety evaluation is a detailed process that calls for eight separate assessments. These include checking the toxicity of “expressed substances,” the composition of key components, and the effects of food processing. They also include evaluating metabolites, assessing immunological impact, antibiotic resistance, gene transfer and the ability of the microorganisms to effect the human digestive tract.
White House officials say updating the GMO evaluation process will not include new food labeling rules. They plan to conduct three hearings in the next year to gain public input about updating GMO safety assessments. They also will prepare a long-term strategy for dealing with future risks and impanel an independent commission to look where biotechnology is heading.
Still, any discussion of GMOs in food provokes a strong national debate about their safety and nutritional value and consumers’ right to know when they are present.
“We are thrilled the administration recognizes that the current biotech review system is not providing consumers much confidence, but we think the president shouldn’t wait to make good on his pledge to require GMO labeling,” Scott Faber, a vice president of the Environmental Working, told the Star Tribune.
“The current [GMO review] process is voluntary,” Faber continued. “It’s based on industry science. We subject some food additives to much more thorough review than is applied to GMO traits. The administration shouldn’t simply stop at the question of whether GMO traits should be subject to mandatory reviews and how extensive those reviews should be, but should go further and take a hard look at how we review food ingredients to ensure safety.”
Land O’Lakes declined to comment about the White House initiative. But in March the Arden Hills-based cooperative’s CEO, Chris Policinski, aggressively defended GMO safety in testimony to the House Agriculture Committee.
“Time and again, biotechnology and genetically modified ingredients haven been proven safe by organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association and more,” Policinski told the committee.
The Minnesota Farm Bureau believes the current interagency framework is not working as it is supposed to because of huge advances in agricultural technology. But Amber Hanson, the bureau’s associate director of public policy, told the Star Tribune that “the current evaluation process is not really voluntary” because of rules at the EPA and USDA.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group that includes Land O’Lakes, along with Golden Valley-based General Mills and Austin-based Hormel, has in the past petitioned the FDA to declare foods with GMOs “natural.” The association also has sued to stop a Vermont law that requires GMO labeling.
In an e-mail to the Star Tribune, the trade group said it does not expect the new White House initiative to include labeling recommendations.
“We are not concerned that a review will lead to labeling because there is no health or safety concern with genetically engineered plants given the federal government’s role in reviewing new plants,” the e-mail stated.
Asked how the grocery group would view replacing the current voluntary consultation system with a mandatory GMO assessment, the association replied that “so far, the marketplace has determined that new plant technologies should go through the FDA before commercialization.”
For the U’s Labuza, letting the marketplace determine safety reviews and letting the food industry determine safety testing protocols is not good public policy.
“To me that would be very unethical,” he said. “The marketplace is driven by sales and is willing to bend the rules.”