Should foods containing genetically modified ingredients be specially labeled as such? The American Medical Assn. doesn’t think so, according to a policy statement adopted Tuesday at its annual meeting in Chicago.
The 500-ish-word statement, which is not yet up at the medical association's website, says among other things that as of this month, “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.”
Federal oversight in agriculture, the statement also says, “should continue to be science-based and guided by the characteristics of the plant or animal, its intended use, and the environment into which it is to be introduced, not by the method used to produce it, in order to facilitate comprehensive, efficient regulatory review of new bioengineered crops and foods.”
In other words, it’s less important whether a plant or animal was altered by conventional breeding or genetic engineering, say, than what the potential for a problem might be.
The AMA does want each new genetically modified organism, or GMO, product to be carefully assessed for consumption safety and potential environmental risks such as spread of insect-resistance or herbicide-resistance to a crop’s wild relatives. And the AMA would like to see better technologies developed for assessing health risks, such as the potential for eliciting allergic reactions.
Here’s an emailed statement from AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris:
“The science-based labeling policies of the FDAdo not support special product labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. The AMA adopted policy supporting this science-based approach, recognizing that there currently is no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods.”
And more from Harris: “Recognizing the public’s interest in the safety of bioengineered foods, the new policy also supports mandatory FDA pre-market systemic safety assessments of these foods as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public. We also urge the FDA to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods.”
Whatever one's feelings about GMO foods, it is true that conventional breeding is perfectly capable of throwing up potential health and environmental hazards, and yet this process is far freer from a regulatory standpoint. The topic is fairly extensively reviewed in a 2004 report from the National Academy of Sciences, which was undertaken to assess the safety of genetically engineered foods.
“All foods, whether or not they are genetically engineered, carry potentially hazardous substances or pathogenic microbes and must be properly and prudently assessed to ensure a reasonable degree of safety," the report notes.
And it goes on: "History provides examples of traditional breeding that resulted in potentially hazardous foods .. Solanaceous (tobacco family) crops, such as potato and tomato, naturally produce various steroidal glycoalkaloids .... During the course of ordinary plant breeding assessments, breeding lines with increased levels of glycoalkaloids may be identified by the breeder as showing superior insect or disease resistance and retained for possible commercial release. The elevation of glycoalkaloid levels responsible for the pest tolerance may not be noted until people become ill from consuming the foods.”
New chemicals can also arise from such breeding. The review cites a case where geneticists bred the cultivated potato (Solanum tuberosum) with a wild potato (Solanum brevidens). The hybrid produced a toxic alkaloid called demissidine, even though neither parent potatoes had contained it.
In November, Californians will get to vote on whether foods with GMO ingredients will require labels.