U.S. Seeks to Remove Biotech Food Labeling From Codex Agenda

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia, March 13, 2005 (ENS) - At international food safety and trade talks in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia this week, the United States urged permanent removal from the agenda the issue of labeling genetically engineered foods.

More than 50 member nations of the World Trade Organization met in Kota Kinabalu to discuss international standards for food labeling at the 33rd Session of the Codex Committee on Food Labeling held May 9-13.

This is the 13th year that the joint food standard-setting body of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization has discussed the labeling of genetically engineered foods.


The U.S. Delegate to this year's Codex Committee on Food Labeling was Leslye Miller Fraser, associate director for regulations at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
Codex Alimentarius is the UN Commission that oversees the quality of food and nutritional supplements worldwide, and promulgates international standards that apply to all countries that have signed the Codex agreement. As with the World Trade Organization (WTO), once a country is a signatory, the rules passed by Codex have the force of international law.

International standards would provide guidance to countries that choose to require labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Such standards would protect countries that have mandatory labeling from a possible U.S.-led WTO challenge, given that the U.S. is the number one producer of genetically engineered crops.

“Polls consistently show that 70-90 percent of Americans want foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled,” said Kerry-Ann Powell staff attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “Yet, the U.S. has been the roadblock to comprehensive international standards moving forward.”

In its white paper "At a Standstill: The United States’ Role in Stalling International Efforts to Label Genetically Engineered Foods," the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S.PIRG) details the 12-year battle to develop international labeling standards for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients and called on the U.S. delegation to relieve the gridlock.

Instead, the final outcome was to postpone a decision once again and allow a smaller working group of countries, including the United States, to discuss the standards and return them to the full body at the next session.

The outcome is part of an ongoing U.S. pattern at these annual Codex meetings to delay and postpone any decision to label genetically engineered foods.

After the 32nd Session of the Codex Committee on Food Labelling which was held May 10-14, 2004 in Montréal, Canada, U.S. Delegate Robert Lake of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wrote, "The United States was pleased with the results of the 32nd Session of the Codex Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL)."

"The Committee reached no consensus after intensive discussions on the Proposed Draft Guidelines for the Labelling of Foods and Food Ingredients Obtained Through Certain Techniques of Genetic Modification/Genetic Engineering: Labelling Provisions and agreed to hold the Guidelines at Step 3 for further country comment and consideration at the next Session of CCFL," he wrote.

"Generally, the outcomes of discussions were satisfactory for the United States and represented a "best expected" result, Lake wrote in an official report of the 2004 meeting.

“It’s a shame that the U.S. continues to disregard American consumers and instead prioritizes the interest of the biotechnology industry,” said Powell. “Consumers have a right to know whether their foods contain genetically engineered ingredients.”


The crops or products shown here have either already been genetically engineered or are involved in ongoing or planned transgenic studies. (Photo by Stephen Ausmus courtesy USDA Agricultural Research Service)
Genetically engineered, or modified, organisms can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. As an application of modern biotechnology, this technique allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.

Crop varieties developed by genetic engineering were first introduced for commercial production in 1996.

The United States accounts for nearly two-thirds of all genetically engineered crops planted globally. U.S. farmers grow corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, squash, and papaya. Other major producers of biotech crops are Argentina and Brazil which plant soybeans; Canada, whose principal biotech crop is canola; as well as China and South Africa where the acreage of biotech cotton is increasing.

Opponents of genetic engineering worry that the modified foods could cause allergies or other health problems, or may make it impossible to grow purely organic crops that are not contaminated with the genes of engineered crops.

The U.S. policy has been consistently opposed to labeling of genetically engineered foods since they began to appear in the marketplace in the mid-1990s.

At the 1997 Codex food labeling meeting, in the section of official documents for recording government comments, the U.S. delegate stated, "The United States is aware that some countries believe that mandatory labeling of foods obtained through biotechnology is warranted solely because of consumers' desire to know. In fact, many consumers in the U.S. have indicated to government agencies such as USDA and FDA that labeling should be mandated to disclose that a product has been obtained through biotechnology."

"However," the delegate wrote, "current United States policy does not require mandatory labeling of all foods obtained through biotechnology based solely on the method of plant breeding. Mandatory labeling of the method of plant modification would be inconsistent with applicable United States laws and resulting food labeling regulations and policy."

"Because foods derived from plants developed through different methods of breeding do not differ in any uniform manner, under United States laws and policies, the failure to identify a plant breeding process is not itself considered to be an omission of a material fact of the type that would cause the food to be misbranded. Thus, the United States believes that, as a class, foods obtained through biotechnology do not warrant any mandatory labeling with regard to the method by which they were obtained."

"Further, the United States believes that providing information regarding the method of production on the food label would be highly impractical and inequitable. Difficulties and costs in applying such labeling to commingled commodity products used in prepackaged foods containing ingredients from many different sources would be substantial and would be borne by all consumers, regardless of the level of their own concerns or preferences, without providing any greater assurance of safety."

"The United States believes that if consumers wish to have access to information on foods obtained through biotechnology, manufacturers ought to provide such information on a voluntary basis."

But U.S. PIRG believes that to sidestep the issue of labeling biotech foods would be to ignore the overwhelming support of consumers in the United States and around the world for comprehensive labeling guidelines for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.

A public opinion survey of American consumers' attitudes towards genetically engineered foods commissioned by ABC News and released on June 20, 2001 found:

The European Union passed a set of regulations in April 2004 that specify labeling and traceability requirements for genetically engineered foods and animal feeds before they can be marketed in the EU.

All pre-packaged products consisting of or containing GMOs requires that operators indicate on a label, “This product contains genetically modified organisms” or “This product contains genetically modified [(name of organism(s)].”

For non-pre-packaged products offered to the final consumer or to mass caterers such as restaurants, hospitals, canteens and similar caterers these words must appear on, or in connection with, the display of the product.

"Labeling informs the consumer and user of the product, hence allowing them to make an informed choice," the EU states in its explanation of the labeling requirements.