Feds on GMO Labeling: Don't Tell, Don't Ask

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If you were hoping there might be some change in the U.S. government's official position on genetically modified and genetically engineered (GM/GE) foods under the Obama administration, tough luck.

Last month there was the appointment of big-time GM/GE advocate (and former Monsanto lobbyist) Islam Siddiqui to Office of the United States Trade Representative as the country's chief agricultural negotiator . Now comes a position paper from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that opposes labeling for genetically modified food. The U.S. claims that letting consumers know whether or not food contains GM/GE products is "false, misleading, or deceptive."

You read that correctly. In Obama Newspeak, telling the public the truth is false, misleading, or deceptive, while concealing facts is not. Incidentally, the language is identical to that used by previous administrations. How's that for change?

The policy prompted yowls of outrage form more than 80 organic, environmental, food-production, and public-health groups. They dispatched a letter earlier this week urging Michael Taylor, who is deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, and Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture, to reconsider (click here for a PDF). "We are concerned that the current U.S. position could potentially create serious problems for food processors in the U.S. who wish to indicate that their products contain no GE ingredients, including on organic food," the letter said.

The administration intends to argue its position at a meeting of the Codex Committee on Food Labeling, a United Nations body that sets labeling rules for food in international trade. Codex will be meeting from May 3 to May 7 in Quebec City. The government feels Codex should not "suggest or imply that GM/GE foods are in any way different from other foods."

"The agenda of the biotech industry is that if consumers don't know about it, they will eat it," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Washington, D. C.-based Food and Water Watch. "Our government shouldn't be carrying the water for the biotech industry, a group that tries not to let the public know what it is doing."

The new policy directly contradicts the USDA's current organic regulations, the groups point out in the letter. USDA organic rules prohibit modified seeds, and organic producers often label their products as being GM-free. "Such foods are clearly different," the letter states. "We are, in fact, concerned that that the current U.S. position appears to seek to establish a precedent at Codex that would make it difficult to label food as non-GM within the U.S."

Agribusiness would love nothing better.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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