Consumers Union Makes False Claims Against the Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Based On Ideology Not Science

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The ideologically driven, anti-technology campaign to restrict access to safe, sustainable and affordable foods improved through biotechnology got a boost when Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin signed into law a new measure that mandates the labeling of foods modified through genetic engineering sold in Vermont.

This campaign in support of the law is based on financial self interest and fear, not on reasoned policy designed to inform and protect consumers. Since other states are considering similar laws based on the same faulty reasoning, a detailed consideration of the argument is timely. To test the misleading statements and mischaracterizations of the labling campaigners I present testimony below from Michael Hansen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist with the Consumers Union. This testimony was presented as part of the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection’s Public Hearing on the Use of Biotechnology in Foods and the Effects on Consumers at Lehman College, on Tuesday, July 30, 2013. I include Hansen’s statements on GMOs and provide a factual analysis with documentation correcting his false and inaccurate claims.

The italicized portions below are statements by Assembly Members or by Michael Hansen. Some of Hansen’s many false and misleading statements are underlined. Corrections follow, in regular font, bold.

I will call the first witness and that is Michael Hansen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist from Consumers Union. Okay would you raise your hand please?Do you swear that on the testimony you give will be truth? MICHAEL HANSEN, PH.D., SENIOR SCIENTIST FROM CONSUMERS UNION: Yes I do…

 As I will discuss in my testimony, …unlike other developed countries, the U.S. does not require genetically engineered foods to be proven safe before they can go on the market despite significant safety concerns. But even if all reasonable safety testing were required, certain individuals could still have unusual allergic or other adverse responses that would not be detected beforehand. There could also be unexpected effects, just as there sometimes are with pharmaceutical products, despite extensive premarket testing. For all these reasons, it’s important to label genetically engineered foods so negative effects can be noticed and identified and so consumers who simply want to avoid these new foods can do so if they wish.

These claims are either factually incorrect or misleading. FDA requires all foods placed on the market in the United States to be safe.  This requirement applies equally to “bioengineered” foods and all others.  Placing any unsafe food on the market is a violation of the Federal Food Drug & Cosmetic Act  carrying criminal penalties. To ensure that bioengineered foods meet this safety requirement, FDA has based its review process and regulations on the findings of international working groups of experts. These have concluded after many years of detailed consideration that

  • Bioengineered foods are not intrinsically different from other foods;
  • The process of producing them and the attendant potential hazards are no different than those we are familiar with from other foods; and that
  • Absent any change in material composition resulting from the “bioengineering”, such foods are “substantially equivalent” to other foods.

For these reasons, FDA concluded that specific regulations and labeling requirements for bioengineered foods are scientifically unjustifiable. There is a strong, worldwide consensus of scientific opinion  in agreement.

The claim of “significant safety concerns” is false, robustly contradicted by the scientific literature, worldwide scientific opinion, and vast experience.

Some representative voices include the following:

“Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods; and if there are unforeseen environmental effects – none have appeared as yet – these should be rapidly detected by our monitoring requirements. On the other hand, the benefits of these plants and products for human health and the environment become increasingly clear.”

–European Commission, Press Release of 8 October 2001, announcing the release of 15 year study incl 81 projects/70M euros, 400 teams (http://ec.europa.eu/research/fp5/eag-gmo.html and  http://ec.europa.eu/research/fp5/pdf/eag-gmo.pdf )

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies…”

http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf

“…because the technique is so sophisticated, in many ways it is probably safer for you to eat GM products – plants that have been generated through GM – than normal plant foods, if you have any sort of reaction to food, because you can snip out the proteins that cause the negative reaction to certain parts of the population.”

–Sir David King, Chief Science Advisor, UK. The Guardian Unlimited, 27 November 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,,2217712,00.html

“In contrast to adverse health effects that have been associated with some traditional food production methods, similar serious health effects have not been identified as a result of genetic engineering techniques used in food production. This may be because developers of bioengineered organisms perform extensive compositional analyses to determine that each phenotype is desirable and to ensure that unintended changes have not occurred in key components of food.” (p. x).

–National Academy of Sciences, 2004. Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. National Research Council, Washington DC. 256pp. ISBN 0-309-53194-2. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10977.html.

“If we look at evidence from [more than] 15 years of growing and consuming GMO foods globally, then there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.”

Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser, European Commission, 2012

http://www.isaaa.org/kc/cropbiotechupdate/article/default.asp?ID=9966

“Food from GM Maize is more healthy than from conventionally grown maize… samples with the highest fumonisin concentrations are found in products labeled ‘organic.’ ”

–Commission on Green Biotechnology, Union of the German Academies of Science & Humanities, at www.abic2004.org/download/reportongmohazards.pdf

“Whereas for conventional varieties there is no legal requirement for allergy tests of their products, for GMO products, very strict allergy tests are mandatory… For this reason, the risk of GM plants causing allergies can be regarded as substantially lower than that of products from conventional breeding.”

–Commission on Green Biotechnology, Union of the German Academies of Science & Humanities, at www.abic2004.org/download/reportongmohazards.pdf

As for Hansen’s claim of “unexpected effects” – to date there are none reported, and

“According to present scientific knowledge, it is most unlikely that the consumption of …transgenic DNA from approved GMO food harbours any recognizable health risk.”

–Commission on Green Biotechnology, Union of the German Academies of Science & Humanities, at www.abic2004.org/download/reportongmohazards.pdf

Unlike conventional or organic foods, bioengineered foods are routinely screened in the US and other industrial nations (per regulations rooted in the OECD guidelines) to ensure they contain no toxins or known allergens. The emergence of previously unknown, novel allergens is so vanishingly rare as not to constitute even a remotely legitimate concern[1]. No such hazards have ever been reported from bioengineered foods in the scientific literature, nor any credible hypothesis through which such hazards might possibly arise.

With respect to allergenicity, it is clear that genetically improved foods (GIFs) are the safest foods available.  Opponents have repeatedly claimed the potential for hazards where they simply do not exist, going so far as to insinuate that the reported increase in food allergies is linked to the introduction of GIFs into the food supply beginning in the mid 1990s. Indeed, one has gone so far as to claim bioengineered foods are responsible for increased reports of celiac disease, a claim absurd on its face, as there is no biotech improved wheat on the market.  It was quickly repudiated by the Celiac Disease Foundation, but it remains on opposition websites and is regularly invoked.

The fact is, we know what it is about food that poses hazards for consumers. The overwhelming majority of negative health outcomes from food consumption is caused by foodborne pathogens. The Centers for Disease Control issues weekly and annual reports from which any mention of genetically improved foods is conspicuous by its absence.

The claim, therefore, that labeling is needed to inform consumers of potential hazards is not only unfounded, but the opposite of the truth: the only safety differential ever reported  between bioengineered and other foods shows the bioengineered foods to be safer.

The claim that labels are needed to enable consumers who may wish to avoid bioengineered foods is also false – consumers already have numerous options to avoid bioengineered foods: they are free to choose to buy food carrying the USDA Organic label, or foods certified “GMO Free” under a number of voluntary certification schemes. There are even smartphone apps that enable consumers to scan a barcode to get an instant read on whether or not a food contains “GM” ingredients. There is, in fact, a dedicated PLU/SKU to identify foods containing biotech derived ingredients, and hundreds of thousands of products around the world that are so encoded.

Hansen also argues that:

“ there’s global agreement that genetic engineering is different than conventional breeding and that there should be required safety assessments before these products come on the market.”

This assertion is false. Plant breeders and credible scientists around the world generally agree that the techniques used to produce transgenic plants, derived directly from natural phenomena, are but an extension of traditional plant breeding, and that the potential hazards are the same (see http://www.amazon.com/Plants-Genes-Biotechnology-Maarten-Chrispeels/dp/0763715867 and http://www.amazon.com/Mendel-Kitchen-Scientists-Genetically-Modified/dp/030909738X).

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences explicitly rejected this claim in its very first publication in this area “Introduction of Recombinant DNA-Engineered Organisms into the Environment – Key Issues (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1987) and has upheld this view in every subsequent study. The Government of Canada in its regulatory structure has specifically repudiated the assertion that plants improved through recombinant techniques are necessarily and intrinsically different than those produced through conventional breeding (see http://www.inspection.gc.ca/plants/plants-with-novel-traits/general-public/novelty/eng/1338181110010/1338181243773). The government of Australia has done likewise (http://www.ogtr.gov.au/internet/ogtr/publishing.nsf/Content/about-index-1#act) and the vast preponderance of scientists around the world concur in this assessment.

(Hansen’s misleading and false assertions continue at length. Please see this full transcript and fact-based corrections with citations.)

As a final comment, while proponents of labeling measures such as those supported here by Hansen most often claim they seek mandatory labels to enable consumer choice, or to address safety issues, it has been noted that the effects of such labeling mandates would advance the financial interests of the major funders of these labeling efforts. Indeed, the major drivers have been quite candid about their actual objectives, which in fact have nothing at all to do  with consumer choice or safety, but rather with driving the adoption of organic food.



[1] Substances featured in reports of “new” allergens fall overwhelmingly into the well-established categories of foods known to be allergenic, e.g. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091674995700358 and http://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/113512.

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About the author

L. Val Giddings has nearly three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He works with ITIF to bring intellectual leadership to examination of the constraints inhibiting innovations in these areas, and devising remedies to those constraints.
  • Transparency

    Labeling products to either organic, conventional or GMO is good, because it gives an incentive for the users of these methods enlighten the public why the method was chosen to be used

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    You left out chemical and nuclear mutagenesis. Why not label those too?

  • Susan Love

    Based on financial gain and fear? No it’s based on 20 years of trying to recover your sick child from Autism, Crohns Disease and Cancer. Experiencing the side effects of Glyphosate and GMOs leaves little room for thinking about financial gain! I bet you’re glad you can afford Certified Organic and chemical free raspberries because otherwise you may be a bit more fearful than you are about what you’re eating. So you’re saying because someone hasn’t been as fortunate as you to control what they eat, they are not privileged to know what they are eating. They should just be glad they are. Pompous stance I’d say! That line, “we need to do this to feed the world” is bogus. Many Studies have proven Glyphosate/GMOs creates DNA mutations, chronic illness, Cancer. Please contact Stephanie Senneff, or read the re-published Seralini Study. Or review the EPA stating Glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor. Come visit my family, you will surely see the devastating affects of Glyphosate, cloned food deficient in nutrients, and children unable to ever be fully independent. Unexplained allergies! Thank goodness though, since transistioning to Organic/Chemical Free they have all but cleared up!

  • Bongstar420

    First sentence- hit the nail on the head!

    The ideologically driven, anti-technology campaign to restrict access…

    Put up a better product or STFU

  • Bongstar420

    Why not label the amount of nitrosomines in organic bacon?

  • Bongstar420

    God forbid people realize they have bad genes and shouldn’t procreate.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    The problem is that organic crops, livestock and food are not tested to ensure they’re safe or genuine. The multibillion dollar organic industry doesn’t hold itself to the same standard that it demands of the rest of the farm and food industry.

  • Bongstar420

    Exactly. No one wants empirical standards verified by independent laboratories.

    We need only to say we followed rules without any real proof at all.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Yes, organic certification is nothing but a bureaucratic honor system when you get right down to it.

    Please check out my website Bongstar420: http://www.isitorganic.ca/

    And let me know what you think.

  • Bongstar420

    Good work!

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Organic activists always believe they’re being set upon by cruel forces of corporate corruption. It justifies their paranoia.