Genetically enhanced wheat

Opponents of agriculture biotechnology have been loudly hailing the certification of a mandatory genetically enhanced food labeling ballot initiative in California. But two largely unreported setbacks in recent weeks should give these activists pause, as these develoments threaten both their public relations and legal strategies in California and elsewhere.

The first setback came from the June annual meeting of the American Medical Association (AMA). There, the AMA reaffirmed its long-standing perspective that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.” That conclusion was based on the AMA’s belief that “There is no evidence that unique hazards exist either in the use of rDNA techniques or in the movement of genes between unrelated organisms.” The AMA certainly is not shy about taking public positions which support activist causes, even where the science doesn’t support those positions. Consider, for instance, its June resolution backing the concept of using soda taxes to curb obesity. So its statement on genetically enhanced foods (GE foods) is a substantial blow to the anti-biotech crowd.

The second setback came from the U.S. Senate and its vote on an amendment to S.3240, better known as the “Farm Bill”.  The Senate considered and voted down (by 73-26 vote) an amendment Senators Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (CA) introduced which would clarify States’ authority to adopt mandatory GE food labeling. Earlier this year, Vermont’s legislature considered and eventually dropped a bill to mandate labeling (see this Legal Pulse post on the bill). One argument made against the bill was that the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) determination not to require GE food labeling foreclosed the States’ ability to require such a label. The Senate’s rejection of the Sanders/Boxer amendment adds weight to this preemption argument, and may provide ammunition to the opponents of the California initiative, who are already threatening a legal challenge if it’s adopted.

As we wrote in the February 2011 post Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Enhanced Foods: Why It’s Not on the Policy Menu:

Food labels carry a great deal of weight with consumers.  What must be included on the ever-shrinking real estate of those labels must be based on sound science and the need to protect public health, not on the ideologically stoked fears of activists.”

The Senate and the AMA, following FDA’s lead, thankfully continue to base their decisions on science and what’s best for public health.