Wednesday, July 16, 2014

2002: The Debate on Labeling Genetically Modified Food

The Debate on Labeling Genetically Modified Food 

Authors: Phil Damery, Nikki D’Adamo, Mike Graham, Matthew Hoffman, Jessica Riedl 


In 1992 Calgene Inc., a small biotechnology company, embarked upon a revolutionary endeavor. 

The company filed a petition with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval of a 

gene used in the development of its FLAVR SAVR tomato. This product would be the first 

genetically engineered (GE) food to be approved for commercial production. Genetic engineering 

is a process that enables scientists to splice plant or animal genes with particular traits into the 

DNA of other organisms. Calgene’s actions nearly a decade ago signaled the advent of 

biotechnology as a means for creating food products that might offer substantial benefits over 

their natural counterparts. Although many people lauded the virtues and immense potential 

offered by biotechnology, others vehemently opposed tinkering with an organism’s genetic 

material because of its potential to unleash unforeseen and harmful consequences. 

Proponents of GE food insist that ensuring an adequate food supply for the booming population is 

going to be a major challenge as the world population continues to grow. Biotechnology promises 

to meet this need through the design of crops that are resistant to pests, herbicides, harsh weather, 

and disease. Furthermore, by genetically engineering foods to contain additional vitamins and 

nutrients, malnutrition worries can be alleviated. On the other hand, various environmental 

activists, public interest groups, professional associations, and government officials have all 

raised concerns about GE foods and criticized agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern 

for potential hazards. Concerns about GE foods include their potential to harm other organisms, 

latent human health risks such as allergies and unknown long-term effects, and the potentially 

prohibitive pricing of GE seeds that would widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor, on 

domestic and international levels. 

One of the biggest issues in the ongoing debate over GE foods is whether they should be labeled 

in order to protect the public’s right-to-know privileges. Mandatory labeling regulations in 

European nations and several other countries are drawing greater scrutiny to this issue in the 

United States. The FDA does not require such labeling unless genetically engineered foods differ 

significantly from their traditional counterparts. Draft FDA guidelines for voluntary labeling 

were developed as of 2001, but have not yet been finalized. Some have suggested that voluntary 

labeling could increase industry credibility and consumer acceptance. 

The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, S. 2080 

On February 22, 2000, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced in the United States Senate the 

Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, S. 2080, to require the labeling of genetically 

engineered food and authorize funds to study the public health and environmental impact of GE 

food. S. 2080 is similar to H.R. 3377 introduced in the United States House of Representatives by 

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich on November 16, 1999. S. 2080 was referred to the Senate Committee 

on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, where it is currently pending consideration. 

Food that contains or is produced with GE material would have to be labeled under S. 2080. 

Genetically engineered material is derived from a GE organism. A genetically engineered 

organism is defined in S. 2080 as an organism that has been altered at the molecular or cellular 

level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes. For example, foods 

containing genetically modified soy and genetically modified corn would have to be labeled. 

Plant varieties developed through traditional processes, such as crossbreeding, are not considered 

to be GE and would not have to be labeled.  2

Under S. 2080, food is considered to be produced with GE material if the organism from which 

the food is derived has been injected or otherwise treated with a genetically engineered material 

or the animal from which the food is derived has been fed genetically engineered material. For 

example, foods that contain milk from a cow injected with GE hormones would also have to be 


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