Tuesday, July 3, 2007

News Bites

The New York Times has been on a roll this week with several good stories. Denise Caruso, Times columnist, executive director of The Hybrid Vigor Institute and author of the fabulous book Intervention, has a must-read article "A Challenge to Gene Theory, A Tougher Look at Biotech," reporting on a study challenging the 'one gene = one protein' assumption. Caruso delves into gene patenting and the very basic assumptions behind genetic engineering:

"Even more important than patent laws are safety issues raised by the consortium’s findings. Evidence of a networked genome shatters the scientific basis for virtually every official risk assessment of today’s commercial biotech products, from genetically engineered crops to pharmaceuticals.

“The real worry for us has always been that the commercial agenda for biotech may be premature, based on what we have long known was an incomplete understanding of genetics,” said Professor Heinemann, who writes and teaches extensively on biosafety issues.

“Because gene patents and the genetic engineering process itself are both defined in terms of genes acting independently,” he said, “regulators may be unaware of the potential impacts arising from these network effects.”

Yet to date, every attempt to challenge safety claims for biotech products has been categorically dismissed, or derided as unscientific.

In another NYT gem, Andrew Martin has a good overview of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) in his article "Labels Lack Food's Origin Despite Law." Martin explains why COOL has been held up for so long (meat industry lobbying, for one thing), and the possibilities for implementation (again) in the new Farm Bill. Though if the 2002 Farm Bill is any indication, we're going to have to do a lot more than rely on the Ag Committee to get the law enforced. My favorite quote in the article supports the typical mantra of "voluntary" labeling:

“No one was prohibited from putting labels on products,” said former Representative Henry Bonilla, Republican of Texas, who as head of the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture pushed through delays of mandatory origin labeling. “If consumers wanted this, they could have demanded it.”

Gee, and here I thought that's what we did five years ago when the law was passed. I guess we were supposed to enforce it ourselves as well. Volunteer labeling brigade, anyone?

Not suprisingly, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending, Mr. Bonilla received $158,328 in campaign funds in 2006 from the livestock industry, making him the top recipient in Congress. He was also the top recipient in 2004, with $132,900, and ranked second in 2002, with $78,350. The article goes on to say that "Mr. Bonilla does not dispute that he delayed the labeling law from taking effect. But he said it was a bad idea..." Thankfully, Mr. Bonilla is no longer in the House of Representatives, and his seat on the subcommittee has been filled by the far more sensible Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) who ends the article with the optimistic quote, "There will be mandatory COOL by 2008 at the latest."

Irradiation in the news. Well, here we are at the close of the comment period for FDA's proposed changes to the labeling requirements on irradiated foods. As more than 28,000 citizen comments collected by the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch opposing the changes are delivered to the FDA, stories abound about irradiated produce being imported into the US. The NYT (I know, enough with the the NYT already) has a story about fruit from Thailand which has been barred from US soil until now. The USDA recently announced that the Thai fruits will be accepted provided they are irradiated. A similar import restriction on mangos from India was also recently lifted under condition that they too be irradiated, though stories are already circulating about the poor quality of those irradiated mangos.

In the biggest surprise of the day, the Produce Marketing Association released a statement supporting consumer disclosure on irradiated produce, and saying of the FDA's proposed change in language "Our concern is that by changing the labeling requirements from “irradiated” to “cold pasteurized” or some other phrase may only confuse the public and could even be perceived as misleading." Ya think? Though the PMA does support the use of irradiation, it is more than refreshing to see such a trade association support consumers' right to know and choose.

Fast Track Trade Authority: Dead (Again) at 33. The president's "fast-track" trade authority expired at midnight on June 30th, and is unlikely to be returned to him by Congress. Fast-track authority allows the president to make international trade agreements without debate or amendments in Congress - just a simple yes or no vote after the executive branch has already chosen the trade partner, negotiated the terms, and even signed the agreement. It also allows "the decider" to ram through trade agreements with little, if any, input from American farmers or citizens which has proven to be more than a little detrimental. Fast-track, after all, is responsible for both NAFTA and the WTO among other damaging trade agreements. Marc R. aka Mental Massala has a great post at the Ethicurean, "International Trade Agreements and Your Food" that has a very good overview of the issue and a welcome plea to journalists and politicians to stop calling every lousy agreement "free trade."

Our friends at Public Citizen, who have been working on trade issues for years published an "obituary" for fast track trade authority that is highly informative, terribly clever and yes, a little funny.

Shameless Self-Promotion. Not to toot our own horn (too late, I hear you say), but CFS's new book, Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food has received some very good press recently. Carol Ness discussed the book with author Andrew Kimbrell in her story Food Conscious: The Shoppers GMO Guide, in the San Francisco Chronicle (it even has a short-list of the book's "Pocket Shopper's Guide" to avoiding GE foods). In other press, Alternet's Vanja Petrovich interviews Kimbrell about the book, genetically engineered food and the state of food safety (or lack thereof) in the U.S. in her story "There's A Lot You Don't Know About What's in Your Food".

Citizens, Consumer Groups Oppose Proposed Irradiation Labeling Change - 28,000 Submit Comments to FDA

More than 28,000 citizens oppose a Food & Drug Administration proposal to permit industry to mislabel irradiated food with alternate terms such as 'pasteurization’ or to remove the requirement for labeling altogether, announced consumer watchdog organizations Food & Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety today. This change by FDA would deny consumers clear information about whether they are buying food that has been exposed to high doses of ionizing radiation.

"Food irradiation is an uncontrolled experiment using millions of Americans as guinea pigs," said Heather Whitehead of the Center for Food Safety. "Given the growing scientific evidence of the dangers of irradiated food, it is unconscionable that FDA would consider hiding irradiation behind misleading words like 'pasteurization.'"

"Consumers have a right to know if their food has been exposed to ionizing radiation," said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. "FDA should be implementing rules that guarantee that right, not allowing the meat and irradiation industries to mislead consumers into buying something they might otherwise avoid."

Irradiation destroys vitamins, protein, essential fatty acids and other nutrients – up to 80 percent of vitamin A in eggs and half the beta carotene in orange juice, the FDA has noted. In some foods, the process forms chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer and birth defects. One group of chemicals, called 2-ACBs, has been linked to tumor growth in rats and genetic damage in human cells.

"This FDA proposal is a bad case of déjà vu," continued Whitehead. "In poll after poll, consumers have rejected the weakening of labeling rules for irradiated food. Thousands of consumers submitted comments opposing a similar proposal by FDA in 1999. Now in 2007 the comments submitted show consumers still want accurate labeling."

Consumers have long been reluctant to purchase irradiated foods. Only a small percentage of the U.S. food supply is irradiated, and efforts to sell irradiated ground beef to public schools through the National School Lunch Program have failed to produce a single order. In 2004, a leading irradiation company called SureBeam filed for bankruptcy.

The push to change the labeling rules for irradiated food is not a new one. In 2002, the Farm Bill instructed the FDA to re-examine its labeling rules, which require irradiated food to bear the radura symbol and a disclosure statement (‘treated with irradiation’ or ‘treated by irradiation.’)

“The FDA’s proposal is a gift to the irradiation industry, which has been struggling for years," Hauter concluded. "The public is no more enthusiastic about changing the label than it is about irradiated food itself."

The Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch urge FDA to abandon this proposed rule change. The groups also alerted consumers across the country about the agency’s dangerous proposal, resulting in more than 28,000 public comments opposing the proposal.