Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

Our nation’s lax policy on GMOs is the work of former Vice President Dan Quayle’s anti-regulatory crusade

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

Our nation’s policy on genetically engineered food is the product of President George H. W. Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle. Quayle is perhaps best remembered for misspelling the word “potato” in a spelling bee, and for his work as the Bush administration’s “regulation terminator.”[1] But his most important legacy was his giant favor to the agrichemical industry and its genetically engineered foods and crops.

Under the Quayle policy, the FDA does not test the safety of genetically engineered food. It does not certify that these foods are safe. Rather, Quayle’s policy allows industry to get away with self-policing of health risks. As Jason Dietz, a policy analyst at FDA explains: “It’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to insure that the product is safe.”[2]

Here’s how the Quayle policy on genetically engineered food came about.

As vice president, under President Reagan, George H. W. Bush expressed his support for deregulation of genetically engineered foods. In a 1987 walkthrough of Monsanto’s St. Louis laboratories, when Monsanto’s regulatory concerns came up, Bush responded: “Call me, I’m in the dereg business. I can help.”[3]

Two years later, when Bush became President, he was in an excellent position to help. On March 31, 1989, he created the White House Council on Competitiveness, and put his vice-president, Dan Quayle, in charge of it. The Washington Post called Quayle’s regulatory relief task force a “command post for a war against government regulation of American business.” It called Quayle a “zealot when it comes to deregulation.”[4] According to the Post, “Word quickly spread through the business community that the Competitiveness Council was ready and able to help on regulatory matters, and its agenda filled up.”

The Quayle regulatory relief task force intervened in countless regulatory battles, including efforts to “change regulations on federal rules relating to commercial aircraft noise, bank liability on property loans, housing accessibility for the disabled, clothing makers’ right to work at home, disclosure requirements on pensions, protection of underground water from landfill runoff, reporting requirements for child-care facilities located in religious institutions, and fees for real estate settlements.”[5]

Here’s how the New York Times described the political process that led to the Quayle policy on genetically engineered food.

In the weeks and months that followed, the White House complied, working behind the scenes to help Monsanto — long a political power with deep connections in Washington — get the regulations that it wanted.

It was an outcome that would be repeated, again and again, through three administrations. What Monsanto wished for from Washington, Monsanto — and, by extension, the biotechnology industry — got. If the company’s strategy demanded regulations, rules favored by the industry were adopted. And when the company abruptly decided that it needed to throw off the regulations and speed its foods to market, the White House quickly ushered through an unusually generous policy of self-policing.

Even longtime Washington hands said that the control this nascent industry exerted over its own regulatory destiny — through the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department and ultimately the Food and Drug Administration — was astonishing.[6]

James Maryanski, the former biotechnology coordinator for FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, explained the White House’s involvement: “Basically, the government had taken a decision that it would not create new laws….Yes, it was a political decision. It was a very broad decision that didn’t apply to just foods. It applied to all products of biotechnology.”[7]

On May 26, 1992, Vice President Quayle himself announced our nation’s policy on genetically engineered foods and crops as a deregulatory initiative.

“The reforms we announce today will speed up and simplify the process of bringing better agricultural products, developed through biotech, to consumers, food processors and farmers,” Mr. Quayle said. “We will ensure that biotech products will receive the same oversight as other products, instead of being hampered by unnecessary regulation.”[8]

Quayle said that the United States “was the world leader in biotechnology” and that the government wanted to “keep it that way.”[9]

Of course, the Quayle policy was lax as intended. No food safety laws or regulations were proposed or promulgated. The FDA merely issued a “guidance” that establishes a process for voluntary “consultations” on safety. The Quayle policy did not require mandatory pre-market or post-market safety testing of genetically engineered food. In essence, the agrichemical industry got exactly what it wanted: the appearance of regulation, without the actuality of it. An article in Nature explained “The biotechnology companies wanted government regulators to help persuade consumers that their products were safe, yet they also wanted the regulatory hurdles to be set as low as possible.”[10]

Henry Miller, the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, explained the outcome quite bluntly: “In this area [regulation of GMOs], the U.S. government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do and told them to do.”[11]

Under the Quayle policy, agrichemical companies were not even required to notify the FDA of a new genetically engineered food or product. That minor requirement was added in 2001.[12]

And so it is unsurprising that the Quayle policy was prepared under the supervision of the FDA’s deputy commissioner for policy, Michael Taylor, a former vice president for public policy at Monsanto,[13] who had also represented Monsanto as a partner of the law firm King & Spalding.[14]

Footnotes

[1]Dan Quayle, Regulation Terminator.” BusinessWeek, November 3, 1991.

[2] Nathaniel Johnson, “The GM Safety Dance: What’s Rule and What’s Real.” Grist, July 10, 2013.

[3] Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World’s Food Supply. (New York: New Press, 2010), p. 144.

[4] Bob Woodward and David S. Broder, “Quayle’s Quest: Curb Rules, Leave ‘No Fingerprints.’” Washington Post, January 9, 1992.

[5] Bob Woodward and David S. Broder, “Quayle’s Quest: Curb Rules, Leave ‘No Fingerprints.’” Washington Post, January 9, 1992.

[6] Kurt Eichenwald, Gina Kolata and Melody Petersen, “Biotechnology Food: From the Lab to a Debacle.” New York Times, January 25, 2001.

[7] Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World’s Food Supply. (New York: New Press, 2010), p. 146.

[8] Kurt Eichenwald, Gina Kolata and Melody Petersen, “Biotechnology Food: From the Lab to a Debacle.” New York Times, January 25, 2001.

[9] Marian Burros, “Documents Show Officials Disagreed On Altered Food.” New York Times, December 1, 1999.

[10] Erik Millstone, Eric Brunner and Sue Mayer, “Beyond ‘Substantial Equivalence.’” Nature 401, 525-526, October 7, 1999. doi:10.1038/44006.

[11] Kurt Eichenwald, Gina Kolata and Melody Petersen, “Biotechnology Food: From the Lab to a Debacle.” New York Times, January 25, 2001. Henry Miller isn’t the only former regulator to make such remarks. For example, former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman commented that “Regulators even viewed themselves as cheerleaders for biotechnology…” Stephanie Simon, “Biotech Soybeans Plant Seed of Risky Revolution.” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2001.

[12] See “Premarket Notification Concerning Bioengineered Foods.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. January 18, 2001, 66 FR 4706.

[13] Taylor currently serves as the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine.

[14] Judy Sarasohn, “Monsanto Losing VIP.” Washington Post, December 23, 1999.