Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Oral Arguments in Challenge to VT Law on GE Labeling

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will hear oral argument Thursday, October 8, in Grocery Manufacturers Assoc. v. Sorrell, on an appeal of the federal district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction. The injunction request was to delay effect of the new Vermont law. The law will require labeling of most foods that contain genetically-engineered ingredients. Unless enjoined, the law will take effect next July.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Forget GMOs, Label DNA!

A survey by economist Jayson Lusk at the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University found, unsurprisingly, that Americans remain skeptical of GMOs: 82 percent surveyed supported mandatory labeling of foods made with ingredients grown from GMOs. However, an astonishing 80 percent of those Americans supported mandatory labeling of foods containing DNA! (The difference between 82 and and 80 percent in this survey is statistically indistinguishable.)

My colleague, Ilya Somin, wrote up an interesting article about this, "Over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA”. His humorous take on DNA labeling follows:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

FDA to update guidance on food ingredient safety assessment

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has begun the process of updating its current guidance on food ingredient safety assessment, commonly referred to as the Redbook, and is requesting input from the public. The agency is interested in developing a framework that incorporates the assessment of ingredients present in various products regulated by the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). Examples include food additives, food contact substances, ingredients that are generally regarded as safe (GRAS), new plant varieties, dietary supplements and new dietary ingredients, cosmetic ingredients, as well as unavoidable chemical contaminants other than microbial pathogens.

The FDA is particularly interested in comments on:

  • Which parts of the Redbook should be updated, and how the FDA should prioritize updates.
  • The scope of the revised guidance, and what other guidance documents could be addressed or incorporated by reference.
  • New assays, test methods, and endpoints that could be useful for safety assessment, with justifications for why and how these proposed new methods should be considered.
  • Key studies and considerations for study interpretation for each of the regulatory categories of food and cosmetic ingredients and chemical contaminants overseen by CFSAN.
  • Ways to make the guidance more useful to stakeholders.
  • Ways to make its processes and criteria for safety assessment clearer to stakeholders.

The comment period ends on May 11, 2015.

Press release

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Consumer Reports Touts Dearies not Theories in Favor of Mandatory GMO Labeling

Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 movie stated, “It is a huge mistake to theorize before one has data. Inevitably one begins to twist facts to suit to theories instead of theories to suit facts.” When one forms theories before having the data, one grows attached to one’s “dearies” and increases risk of confirmation bias.

The March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine features an article with an ostensible intent to help consumers “sift through the facts” about the purported health and environmental effects of genetically modified organism (GMOs). Unfortunately, the article cites theories that lack supporting facts and in the end only adds to the fog surrounding modern biotechnology.

For instance, Consumers Union opines that, “the jury is still out on the health impact of GMOs.” The jury of public opinion may be out, but the overwhelming conclusion of scientific experts is clear: Every major scientific body in the United States and around the world has reviewed independent research and concluded that genetically engineered crops and food are as safe as those developed by conventional methods.

Consumers Union claims that animal studies “have suggested that GMOs might cause damage to the immune system, liver, and kidneys,” but they fail to support their allegation with a single study. I endeavor to read every study that is touted as showing GMO risk. I have yet to find a single one that indicates a risk different than with conventionally bred varieties.

The column describes recent attempts by U.S. states to require GMO labeling and repeats a misleading mantra, "shoppers have a right to know what’s in their food.” GMO labeling reveals nothing about what is in a food. Genetic engineering is a breeding method not an end product. Rather, to the degree that people believe GMO labeling reveals something about what is in their food, GMO labeling is misleading.

The article did point out an interesting twist to the labeling debate. The food companies strongly opposed to mandatory GMO labeling also produce non-GMO products. Consumer Reports seems so surprised that companies would produce what people are willing to pay for that they missed the importance of the fact — people already have the choice to buy GMO or non-GMO. Consumers can buy organic (which cannot contain GMOs) or products with voluntary “Non-GMO" labeling.

The article concludes that mandatory GMO labeling schemes would add “less than a penny a day” to most grocery bills. This conclusion is based on an assumption that food producers would simply add “GMO” to existing labels with no change in product formulation. This is a na├»ve assumption considering the expected negative consumer reaction. Many misperceive mandatory GMO labeling as validation of theories about risk. When it is assumed many products will be reformulated to avoid GMO ingredients, other studies put the estimated cost increase for a family of four at $400 to $800 per year.

The Consumer Reports' economic analysis is also superficial because it ignores how the details of a GMO labeling law would affect the costs. For example, a GMO-labeling exemption for organically produced foods could magnify the increase in food costs to consumers. In typical recently proposed GMO-labeling laws, organic food would be exempt from GMO labeling if it contains inadvertent GMO content. Whereas with nonorganic, non-GMO labeled products, companies would face legal repercussions if testing reveals misbranding even if due to inadvertent content. This would likely drive up the cost of non-GMO labeled food because food companies would choose more expensive organic ingredients to avoid potential liabilities (Van Eenennaam). Oh, and this would also benefit organic growers, who are major sponsors of these laws. But I am sure that is just a coincidence.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New EU Legislation Would Let European Union Member States Ban a Gene-Engineered Crop

It violates the spirit of the World Trade Organization agreements.

It upends the status of science as the neutral arbiter.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the new legislation in the European Union that will give member states the power to ban gene-engineered crops (GMOs) for various social and policy reasons. The legislation was approved by the European Parliament is expected to be approved by the European Council.

Up to now, GMOs are banned only for health and safety concerns. Under the future rules even after the European Food Safety Authority has found a GMO safe, members states may ban the GMO in their territory, “based on a wide range of reasons such as: environmental or agricultural policy objectives, town and country planning, land use, socio-economic impacts, avoidance of GMO presence in other products, or public policy, to name a few.”

I am optimistic this law will help clean up a polluted scientific communication environment. No longer will it be necessary to distort the facts and magnify the risks to justify a ban.

Perhaps we are already seeing some refreshing honesty as a result. The Scottish government has recently asserted its opposition to planting of GMOs. The reasons:
1. “[T]here is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers.”
2. "To grow GM crops in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand.”

You have to respect that. No disingenuous framing. No wildly implausible theories. Just preference and protection of marketing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My article on partially hydrogenated oils, GRAS, and Pigs in a Poke

In the current issue of Food Technology I have an article on partially hydrogenated oils, GRAS, and pigs in a poke. You can read the whole article here.