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Fight Over Labels for Genetically Modified Food Comes to New Jersey

Andrew Kitchenman | March 7, 2013

Legislators weigh requirement as industry and activists debate whether engineered food poses health risks

Cornfield
Credit: Jlantzy

State legislators are weighing whether all genetically modified foods should be labeled, as New Jersey has become the latest battleground in a national debate over the practice.

Supporters of labeling argue that not enough is known about the long-term health consequences of the technique, in which genetic material from organisms like bacteria is inserted into the DNA of plants and animals to add a specific trait, such as making them resistant to herbicides.

However, advocates for farm, retail, chemical and biotechnology companies argue that a scientific consensus has formed against the need for labeling. They point to a decision by the Food and Drug Administration against labeling the products as evidence that no harmful effects have been found from the genetically modified foods.

Since first being introduced in the mid-1990s, the crops have become pervasive, with the vast majority of corn, cotton, soy and canola now containing genetic modifications. This means that nearly all processed foods also are genetically modified.

Labeling advocates have regrouped after a major effort to add labeling was defeated in a referendum in California last year. They are now pushing for similar measures in several states, including New Jersey.

The bipartisan New Jersey bill, S-1367 and A-3192, is sponsored by Sen. Robert W. Singer (R-Monmouth and Ocean) and Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union).

“Every journey starts out slow,” Singer said. “This is a journey that is going to take some time. We have to get it right, but this is a legitimate concern.”

Sen. Robert W. Singer (R-Monmouth and Ocean).
Sen. Robert W. Singer (R-Monmouth and Ocean).

Singer said he was prompted to introduce the bill after speaking with residents concerned about the lack of information about which foods are genetically modified. He said he is interested in input from Gov. Chris Christie’s office and wants to make sure the bill doesn’t conflict with laws being considered in other states.

Officials with Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group, contend that more testing should be done on genetically modified foods. The organization is supporting similar labeling laws across the country.

“This is about giving consumers choices and options about what they want to consume,” said Jim Walsh, state director for the organization. He said industry groups that benefit from genetically modified foods have sponsored nearly all research done in the United States on the issue.

Food & Water Watch spokesman Seth Gladstone compared labeling to current requirements for listing food ingredients and calories.

“A lot of this technology is very new, and just because we have not found yet any evidence of health problems doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Gladstone said.

While some organic farmers support the measure, most farmers in the state oppose it.

State Board of Agriculture member Hugh McKittrick cited a United Nations study concluding that global food production must double by 2050. He noted that the biotechnology used in genetically modified foods allows increased food production.

“To avoid what technology is available and so far has not been proven to be negative would be a disservice to the human population. How do we eat?” he said.

New Jersey Farm Bureau President Ryck Suydam told legislators at a March 4 hearing that farmers support some labeling, but not mandatory labels.

For instance, Suydam said producers of foods without genetic modifications could label them as such, similar to how organic food is labeled. He said such labels should result from consumer demand, not from government mandates.

He likened genetic-modification techniques to those traditionally used by farmers, such as growing hybrids.

However, Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) said she felt there was a difference between introducing material to corn that has never existed in corn, compared with creating a tomato hybrid from existing tomatoes.

Singer said he expects to make changes to the bill to make it clear that it would only apply to products that have been genetically engineered, rather than to products that have been grown through traditional techniques, such as creating hybrids.

The Food and Drug Administration has found no difference between conventional and modified foods, other than the genetically introduced traits. Since there is no scientific difference, the FDA has found no reason to introduce labeling, according to William K. Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station..

Singer said that labeling wouldn’t prevent farmers from growing and selling the products.

Ed Waters, government relations director for the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, said he’s concerned that the very act of labeling food as genetically modified will lead consumers to believe that it is either inferior or not healthy.

He noted that the American Medical Association and the National Academies of Sciences have found no adverse health effects from genetically modified foods.

The Assembly version of the bill is scheduled to be discussed at an Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee meeting today.

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