Amalie Lipstreu commentary: Lawmakers hostile to public’s plea for better labeling on food

It is time for members of Congress to represent the interests of their constituents.
Recently, leaders of the House Agriculture Committee issued antagonistic statements about food labels overwhelmingly supported by the public. Those statements flagrantly disregard American food buyers’ opinions. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and whether it contains genetically engineered ingredients. Instead, lawmakers are working to limit access to this information.

Country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, was included in the 2002 Farm Bill, but consistent implementation of COOL labels has been hampered by attacks from the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers and other trade associations. Yet, most consumer and farm organizations believe imported food should be labeled. Polling shows that between 82 percent and 95 percent of consumers support country-of-origin labeling.

Despite court challenges and appeals to the World Trade Organization from Canada and Mexico, COOL has been upheld. The WTO requested that the U.S. provide clear requirements for labeling meat, which may be raised in one country, processed in another, and combined with meat from several different countries. A ruling is expected in May.

However, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican, in a statement said, “COOL has been a failed experiment from the start.” Given widespread public support and the upcoming ruling, this indictment is premature and calls into question whether our public officials are truly working to represent the public interest.

Majorities in Congress appear to be forsaking public calls for labeling genetically engineered food, too. National polls consistently show that consumers overwhelmingly support such labeling. Recently, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association released results of a poll that found 87 percent of Ohio voters support labels for genetically engineered food.

The Ohio poll also found strong nonpartisan support: 89 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of independents say they have a right to information about what they eat and feed their families.

In his opening statement at the committee hearing on costs and impacts of labeling, Conaway indicated regulations would make it harder to feed the world. Independent review clearly shows that genetic-engineering technology has not lived up to the claim that it would feed the world; instead, investments in traditional crop or seed hybridization could lead to the same or greater ability to meet the demands of a growing population.

The public is told to relax, because we have a scientifically sound federal regulatory process. Yet, an independent analysis found that when the Food and Drug Administration requested additional information, industry did not comply half of the time and data errors were not identified. Moreover, the FDA did not generate its own safety assessments but rather merely summarized the company’s food-safety analysis for the public.

Biotechnology companies and their proponents characterize attempts to bring to light these inadequacies or to discuss the negative environmental and economic implications of genetic engineering as misinformed and unfounded.

How many times in our history has the America public been told that products or technologies are safe, only to find many years later that there was real harm? We have earned the right to be cautious, and we expect our elected officials to represent our interests.

Conaway’s neglect of public opinion about labeling food for country of origin and for genetic engineering is emblematic of why the public feels apathetic about the political process. Despite a clear mandate, politicians are serving the interests of businesses that will profit from the public being kept in the dark.

Labeling is complicated and does cost money, but the reality is that labels are changed on a regular basis. If the public wants more information about their food, our leaders should make sure industry gives them that information.

Amalie Lipstreu is policy program coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.