(Image: FDA)On February 27, First Lady Michelle Obama launched a media blitz to tout the FDA's proposed new rules for nutrition labels on packaged foods. Both the FDA and Mrs. Obama trumpeted the changes, the first in 20 years and 10 years in the making, as being designed to help consumers "make healthy food choices for their kids."
Changes to nutrition labels are long overdue, and it's great that Mrs. Obama is leading the charge to force food manufacturers to provide more accurate information about their products.
But conspicuously absent from the media hype was any mention of the one label that consumers have been crystal clear about wanting, the label that consumers in nearly 60 other countries have but Americans don't-a label that tells us whether or not our cereal or soda or mac & cheese contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Under the proposed new rules, food manufacturers will be required to list more realistic (as in larger) serving sizes, and display the calorie count in large, bold type. The new labels will also provide a more detailed breakdown of the types of sugar contained in products. And instead of listing vitamins A and C, new labels will list vitamin D and potassium, because, the FDA said, it has evidence that "people are not consuming enough of these nutrients to protect against chronic diseases."
Nothing wrong with these changes. But when is the last time you read a petition demanding the FDA list vitamin D on labels? Or a news article about tens, or hundreds of thousands of consumers clamoring for a more accurate breakdown of the sugar content in their foods?
What consumers really want to know is whether or not their food has been genetically engineered. And anyone who's paying attention knows that this issue-labeling of GMOs-has for the past two-and-a-half years dominated the public discourse around food policy and labeling.
In 2007, on the campaign trail in Iowa, then-Senator Barack Obama told supporters, "We'll let folks know if their food has been genetically modified, because Americans should know what they're buying." He has not honored that campaign promise.
In 2012, during the high-profile California Proposition 37 campaign, a citizens' initiative that would have required mandatory labeling of GMOs in foods, nearly 208,000 people signed our petition to Michelle Obama asking her to remind President Obama of his campaign promise, and to support GMO labeling. Mrs. Obama did not respond.
Proposition 37 was defeated by a mere 1 percent, only after the biotech and food companies spent more than $46 million to defeat it. A similar scenario played out in Washington State in 2013, where I-522, another citizens' ballot initiative, was also defeated by 1 percent. Industry spent a total of $70 million to defeat those two initiatives, $12 million of which was illegally laundered. Industry has spent millions more lobbying state legislators and Congress to prevent state and federal laws requiring the labeling of GMOs in our food. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a multi-billion dollar lobbying group, has even drafted a bill that would preempt states from passing such laws.
In 1992, the FDA cleared the way for GMOs to enter the U.S. food supply, unlabeled, and without independent, pre-market safety testing. We have Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lobbyist-turned-Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA (1991 to 1994), to thank for that decision.
The genetic engineering and food industries claim that GMO foods are safe. Hundreds of medical professionals and scientists dispute that claim. But no one disputes the fact that in order to grow GMO crops, farmers are required to use a stunning array of increasingly toxic pesticides and herbicides. And they must use them in increasing amounts, as weeds and pests build up tolerances.
Scientists have sounded the alarm that these chemicals pose a serious threat to our kids. In addition to counting calories, shouldn't we be counting the chemicals our kids are ingesting? Or at the least, shouldn't food companies be required to tell us if the foods we're eating were produced from GMO crops drenched in pesticides and herbicides?
Polls reveal that 80-93 percent of Americans want GMOs labeled. Congress, the FDA and the Obama Administration refuse to respond. Meanwhile industry spends millions to deprive consumers of this basic information.
If Mrs. Obama is serious about the health and nutrition of our nation's kids, it's time for her to stand up for consumers, stand up to industry, and demand truth and transparency when it comes to labeling the GMOs in our food.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Katherine Paul is the communications director for the Organic Consumers Association.