In less than two weeks, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which would require labeling of food sold in California grocery stores if the food contains genetically engineered ingredients. Sixty-one other countries already have this requirement in place. You should not have to be a chemist, toxicologist or geneticist to have trust in your food.
There is a long history of false reassurances in the environmental health world, including about many pesticides, fumigants, food dyes and preservatives. The most outrageous manipulations of public trust were industry denials of hazards from tobacco, and the misinformation from the lead industry, which worked aggressively in opposition to the concerns of pediatricians and others about lead’s toxicity, especially to children.
Genetically engineered foods have been on the U.S. market since the mid-1990s. Studies on short- or long-term health effects are hard to find since the FDA does not require them for market approval. The health effects of genetically engineered foods are still unclear.
One recent small study with rats in France that had a controversial finding is not sufficient evidence and should not change any voter’s opinion. But given the longstanding and repeated patterns of false reassurances in environmental health, it is only fair and prudent for people to be skeptical of safety claims, and have the right to know what they are being exposed to.
People should have information about the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in their food both when there may be a benefit to the person eating (for example, rice used in poor countries that includes Vitamin A), and when there are benefits only to the producer.
In the US, we already have food labels showing nutrition, allergy information, and other facts that consumers want to know. This proposition would add information telling us if food is modified by adding genetic material from other plants, animals, bacteria, or viruses. It gives companies 18 months to make the simple change to adjust their food label.
While I was director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, I instituted the federal effort to “biomonitor” chemical levels in the U.S. population because I knew that as scientists, we could not conduct studies on the health effects from activities or substances unless we had information about how people came into contact with them. Right now, without proper labeling, we do not know if genetically engineered ingredients are in our food and we have no way to make informed decision about what we are feeding our families. We have a right to know what’s in our food.
Richard Jackson is a pediatrician, a former State Public Health Officer and former Director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. He recently received the John Heinz Award in Environment and is a board director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.