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Former FDA official on GMO labeling: ‘Science doesn’t always win’

By Elaine WATSON , 17-May-2013
Last updated on 17-May-2013 at 17:41 GMT

Former FDA official on GMO labeling: ‘Science doesn’t always win’

Whether the food industry likes it or not, when it comes to GMO labeling, the “train appears to have left the station”, according to former FDA associate commissioner of foods Dr David Acheson.

Dr Acheson, who now heads up the food and import safety division at consultancy Leavitt Partners, was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as a GMO labeling bill passed its first regulatory hurdle in Vermont (click here ) and members of Congress examine a federal GMO labeling bill proposed by Sen Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR).

The last thing the food industry wants is 50 different laws in 50 states

He added: “I think it’s only a matter of time before one state [GMO labeling proposal] is successful and the last thing the food industry wants is 50 different laws in 50 states, so the thinking is that if it’s going to happen, it would be better to have one standard that’s national.

“They also can’t afford to oppose it in 50 states. I think there may be an attitude of let’s just do it now [work with the FDA to create a national labeling law] and get it over with because ultimately, we will lose [the argument against GMO labeling].

Meanwhile, global food companies are already having to navigate GMO labeling laws in other markets, he added.

“I think many food companies were hoping that after [Californian GMO labeling initiative] Prop 37 was defeated, this issue would go away, but it hasn’t.

“I don’t know if the average consumer cares about this but there is a very vocal minority that’s driving change - it’s analogous to the pink slime issue."

What is the purpose of food labeling?

But while the outcome of this debate might “appear inevitable”, he said, “let’s not confuse consumers’ appropriate desire to know what they are eating with risk-based labeling for the purposes of public health.”

The issue for legislators is complex, however. Does there have to be a food safety risk or nutritional issue for labeling to be warranted? Or do consumers have a ‘right to know’ regardless? What is the purpose of labeling?

This issue was a constant subject of debate when he was at the FDA, said Dr Acheson, not least because there is only a limited amount of space on food labels, meaning that anything that has to be there by law should be there for a good reason.

What precedent might it set if legislation is passed to label foods made using certain technologies?

Dr David Acheson: 'Let’s not confuse consumers’ appropriate desire to know what they are eating with risk-based labeling for the purposes of public health'

Meanwhile, what precedent might it set if legislation is passed to label foods made using certain technologies, even if the end product does not differ from other foods in any meaningful or material way or present any different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding methods?

“My philosophy was that labels are there to inform about public health issues that are important for consumers’ wellbeing”, said Dr Acheson.

”But it’s difficult. For example at one time [2004/5] we were debating whether there ought to be labels about mercury levels in canned seafood and whether a majority of consumers would benefit from this.”

The dilemma was whether blanket warning labels - which would likely dent sales of a low-fat healthy product high in protein and other nutrients - in order to address the concerns of a small subset of the population, were justified, he said.  

However, you could argue that country-of-origin labeling is hard to justify on public health or nutrition grounds, “so in a sense, a precedent has already been set” for labeling foods on ‘right to know’ grounds, he said.

“I don’t disagree with the view that consumers have a right to know what they are eating, although I’ve not seen any science that convinces me that GMOs represent any kind of threat to the public. I also think that not all GMOs are created equal and everything must be assessed [on its own merits].

“But if we are to have labeling, the question is how will this information be presented such that it is ‘FYI’, not a health warning.”

Will the major players ‘just label it’ and be done with it?

So how does he anticipate things playing out?  Will the major players ‘just label it’ and be done with it, or will a federal GMO labeling law encourage a wholesale shift away from agricultural biotechnology in the US as major firms seek to source non-GMO ingredients? 

No one really knows, although it will not be practically possible to go non-GMO overnight, he said.

“I suspect if we do label GMOs, there will be a section of the public that will change their behavior, while other people will be happy to buy GM foods, and others will not notice and we’ll get over it and move on. But if consumers start to shift, businesses will have to respond.

“But as a planet I don’t know how we are going to feed everyone without higher yielding and drought resistant crops. What’s the alternative?”

The momentum building behind GMO labeling just shows what a “small, highly vocal, well organized group of people can accomplish irrespective of the science”, said Dr Acheson.

“Science doesn’t always win.”

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