It keeps them off the streets, anyway

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Despite the science showing there to be no health risks to genetically engineered (GE) foods, some members of Congress are pressing the FDA to require that all GE foods be labeled as such. The Center for Food Safety filed a legal petition to the FDA, and now 45 U.S. Representatives and 10 U.S. Senators have thrown their support behind the petition in a letter to the FDA.

Supporters of GE food labeling argue that the public has the right to know," and that labeling does not imply that such foods are unsafe. The Congress members letter makes the case that genetic engineering creates silent, genetic, and molecular changes to food that are not capable of being detected by human senses, and that therefore, labeling is necessary to distinguish these foods.

Yet genetic modification of food crops has been ongoing, and accelerating, since 1996, and no GE-specific adverse effects on crops or the environment have been detected. In fact, the FDA has repeatedly found GE foods to be just as safe as any other food. Among its important benefits, genetic engineering has resulted in crops that are resistant to insects and herbicides. Currently, the majority of American-grown corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets are genetically engineered.

People argue that we need labels just so that people will be aware, ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan observes. But there are any number of arbitrary details we could put on a label that make absolutely no difference in the quality of the food. Why, for instance, don t we label foods grown in West Virginia? An added label implies that there is something wrong with the food, and that there is some risk associated with it.

Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), an ACSH advisor and food policy expert, makes a strong case against requiring labels for genetically engineered foods. In a recent piece for Food Chemical News, Conko argues that genetically engineered foods are at least as safe, and in some cases safer, than regular foods, and that requiring a label may in fact do more harm than good. Neither consumers nor governments have a right to force producers to disclose information about their products that is irrelevant to health, safety, or some other important interest, he writes. Singling out one of the safest, and certainly the most heavily regulated, breeding methods in order to stigmatize it simply does not qualify.

ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava agrees. Labeling is supposed to have a real message, she says. It should either indicate potential harm (such as possible allergens) or relay the product s nutrient content. How a food is produced is not germane to either of these aims.