Keeping Secrets From Consumers: Labeling Law a Win for Industry-Academic Collaborations

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You’ve heard the mantra over and over – there are no safety concerns associated with genetically engineered crops. That refrain, music to agrichemical and biotech seed industry ears, has been sung repeatedly by U.S. lawmakers who have just passed a national law that allows companies to avoid stating on food packages if those products contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Sen. Pat Roberts, who shepherded the law through the Senate, dismissed both consumer concerns and research that has fed fears about potential health risks related to genetically engineered crops, in lobbying on behalf of the bill.

“Science has proven again and again that the use of agriculture biotechnology is 100 percent safe,” Roberts declared on the Senate floor on July 7 before bill passed. The House then approved the measure on July 14 in a 306-117 vote.

Under the new law, which now heads to President Obama’s desk, state laws mandating GMO labeling are nullified, and food companies need not clearly tell consumers if foods contain genetically engineered ingredients; instead they can put codes or website addresses on products that consumers must access for the ingredient information. The law intentionally makes it difficult for consumers to gain the information. Lawmakers like Roberts say it’s okay to cloud the issues for consumers because GMOs are so safe.

But many consumers have fought for years for foods to be labeled for GMO content precisely because they do not accept the safety claims. Evidence of corporate influence over many in the scientific community who tout GMO safety has made it difficult for consumers to know who to trust and what to believe about GMOs.

“The ‘science’ has become politicized and focused on serving markets,” said Pamm Larry, director of the LabelGMOs consumer group. “The industry controls the narrative, at least at the political level.” Larry and other pro-labeling groups say there are many studies indicating that GMOs can have harmful impacts.

This week, the French newspaper Le Monde added fresh reason for skepticism about GMO safety claims when it unveiled details of University of Nebraska professor Richard Goodman’s work to defend and promote GMO crops while Goodman was receiving funding from top global GMO crop developer Monsanto Co. and other biotech crop and chemical companies. Email communications obtained through Freedom of Information requests show Goodman consulting with Monsanto frequently on efforts to turn back mandatory GMO labeling efforts and mitigate GMO safety concerns as Goodman conducted “scientific outreach and consulting on GM safety” in the United States, Asia and the European Union.

Goodman is but one of many public university scientists engaged in such work. Similar collaborations have been revealed recently involving public scientists at several universities, including the University of Florida and the University of Illinois. Cumulatively, the relationships underscore how Monsanto and other industry players exercise influence in the scientific arena of GMOs and pesticides to push points that protect their profits.

In its examination of those concerns, the Le Monde article shines a light on how Goodman, who worked at Monsanto for seven years before moving to the public university in 2004, came to be named associate editor of the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) to oversee GMO-related research reports. Goodman’s naming to the FCT editorial board came shortly after the journal angered Monsanto with the 2012 publication of a study by French biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini that found GMOs and Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide could trigger worrisome tumors in rats. After Goodman joined the FCT editorial board the journal retracted the study in 2013. (It was later republished in a separate journal.) Critics at the time alleged the retraction was tied to Goodman’s appointment to the journal’s editorial board. Goodman denied any involvement in the retraction, and resigned from FCT in January 2015.

The Le Monde report cited email communications obtained by the U.S. consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know (which I work for). The emails obtained by the organization show Goodman communicating with Monsanto about how best to criticize the Séralini study shortly after it was released “pre-print” in September 2012. In a Sept. 19, 2012 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond: “When you guys have some talking points, or bullet analysis, I would appreciate it.”

Emails also show that FCT Editor in Chief Wallace Hayes said Goodman started serving as associate editor for FCT by Nov. 2, 2012, the same month the Séralini study was published in print, even though Goodman was later quoted saying that he was not asked to join FCT until January 2013. In that email, Hayes asked Monsanto’s Hammond to act as a reviewer for certain manuscripts submitted to the journal. Hayes said the request for Hammond’s help was also “on behalf of Professor Goodman.”

The email communications show numerous interactions between Monsanto officials and Goodman as Goodman worked to deflect various criticisms of GMOs. The emails cover a range of topics, including Goodman’s request for Monsanto’s input on a Sri Lankan study submitted to FCT; his opposition to another study that found harmful impacts from a Monsanto GMO corn; and project funding from Monsanto and other biotech crop companies that makes up roughly half of Goodman’s salary.

Indeed, an October 2012 email exchange shows that around the time Goodman was signing on to the FCT journal and criticizing the Seralini study, Goodman was also expressing concern to his industry funders about protecting his income stream as a “soft-money professor.”

In an October 6, 2014 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto Food Safety Scientific Affairs Lead John Vicini to say that he was reviewing an “anti-paper” and hoped for some guidance. The paper in question cited a 2014 report from Sri Lanka about a “possible exposure/correlation and a proposed mechanism for glyphosate toxicity related to kidney disease.” Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and is used on Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops. The World Health Organization in 2015 said glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen after several scientific studies linked it to cancer. But Monsanto maintains glyphosate is safe.

In the email to Vicini, Goodman said he did not have the expertise needed and asked for Monsanto to provide “some sound scientific arguments for why this is or is not plausible.”

The emails show other examples of Goodman’s deference to Monsanto. As the Le Monde article points out, In May 2012, after the publication of certain comments by Goodman in an article on a website affiliate with the celebrity Oprah Winfrey, Goodman is confronted by a Monsanto official for “leaving a reader thinking that we really don’t know enough about these products to say if they are ‘safe.’” Goodman then wrote to individuals at Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF and Dow and Bayer and apologized “to you and all of your companies,” saying he was misquoted and misunderstood.

Later in one July 30, 2012 email, Goodman notified officials at Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta and BASF that he has been asked to do an interview with National Public Radio about whether or not there is a relationship between GMO crops and increasing food allergies. In an Aug 1, 2012 reply, an official at Bayer offered him free “media training” before his interview.

The emails also show Goodman’s collaborative work with Monsanto to try to defeat GMO labeling efforts. In one October 25, 2014 email to Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs and Vicini, Goodman suggests some “concepts and ideas” for advertisements that can educate “consumers/voters.” He wrote that it was important to convey the “complexity of our food supplies” and how mandatory labeling could add to costs if companies responded by sourcing more non-GMO commodities. He wrote of the importance of conveying those ideas to the Senate and the House, and his hope that “the labeling campaigns fail.”

The emails also make clear that Goodman depends heavily on financial support from St. Louis-based Monsanto and other biotech agricultural companies who provide funding for an “Allergen Database” overseen by Goodman and run through the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska. A look at the sponsorship agreement for the allergen database for 2013 showed that each of six sponsoring companies were to pay roughly $51,000 for a total budget of $308,154 for that year. Each sponsor then can “contribute their knowledge to this important process,” the agreement stated. From 2004-2015, along with Monsanto, the sponsoring companies included Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Bayer CropScience and BASF. One 2012 invoice to Monsanto for the Food Allergen Database requested payment of $38,666.50.

The purpose of the database is aimed at “assessing the safety of proteins that may be introduced into foods through genetic engineering or through food processing methods.” The potential for unintended allergens in some genetically engineered foods is one of the common fears expressed by consumer groups and some health and medical experts.

In comments on the House floor, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said the QR codes were a gift to a food industry seeking to hide information from consumers. The law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want,” he said. “Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”

Goodman, Monsanto and others in the biotech ag industry can celebrate their win in Congress but the new labeling law is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs given the fact that it negates the type of transparency consumers seek – just a few simple words if a product is “made with genetic engineering.”

Hiding behind a QR code does not inspire confidence.

For GMO Labeling Advocates, It Doesn’t Get Much Darker Than This

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This article was original published in Huffington Post.

By Carey Gillam

News Thursday that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and the committee’s ranking Senate Democrat Debbie Stabenow had finally sewn up a deal on nationwide GMO labeling left the food industry celebrating – but GMO labeling backers cursing – a law that will continue to leave consumers largely in the dark about the GMO content of their groceries.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents the interests of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies and has been the chief architect of legislation to pre-empt Vermont’s mandatory labeling law, said Thursday that it “fully supports” the terms of the newly proposed legislation.

Senate Ag Democrats quickly took to social media to try to defend the deal, calling it a “win for consumers.” A prior measure pushed by Roberts, referred to by critics as Deny Americans the Right to Know Act, or the DARK Act,  was blocked by Senate Democrats in March.

But consumer advocates who were merely days away from seeing the nation’s first mandatory GMO labeling law implemented – set to take effect in Vermont on July 1 – said the bill was no better than the prior version, and they vowed to do all they could to block its passage.

“This is not a labeling bill; it is a non-labeling bill,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, in a statement. “We are appalled that our elected officials would support keeping Americans in the dark about what is in our food and even more appalled that they would do it on behalf of Big Chemical and food corporations.

The chief objection is that while the bill nullifies Vermont’s law, and any other similar state labeling efforts, it also allows companies to avoid the main thing consumers have demanded – a fast and easy way to determine if a food product they are purchasing was made using genetically engineered crops.

To appease consumer concerns about GMOs, many national food companies have already started providing simple and clear on-package GMO labeling. But under the law now proposed, food companies could avoid any mention of genetic engineering on their packages and “disclose” GMO ingredients through digital codes rather than on-package language. Consumers would be directed to “scan here for more food information” with a smartphone to find information about the food they want to buy. Another option would allow food companies to provide a phone number along with language that states “call for more food information.”

And, while the Vermont law would be nullified immediately, the law gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) two years to finalize a rule laying out the disclosure requirements. Food manufacturers defined as “very small” would be exempt from the disclosure requirement entirely.

The law provides no federal penalties for violations of the labeling requirements. It calls for the USDA to determine the amounts of GMO “substance that may be present in food” to be considered a bioengineered food. Foods that have meat, poultry, and egg products as main ingredients are exempted.

And, some consumer advocates say that a provision setting a definition of genetic engineering, or “bioengineering,” would be limited to such an extent that some interpretations might mean that foods made with herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans, the main GMO crops grown in the United States, would not be subject to the labeling requirements.

Consumer groups are vowing to blitz members of Congress with demands that they block the law, reminding them that this isn’t about politics – it’s about a consumer’s fundamental right to make an informed decision about the food they are buying for themselves and their families.

Many consumers worry that the genetically engineered crops on the market now carry potential and actual risks for human health and the environment. They worry that because most GMO crops are sprayed with glyphosate herbicide, which the World Health Organization has declared a probable human carcinogen, that GMO foods might contain dangerous levels of that pesticide. And they lack confidence in the regulatory and corporate entities that say those concerns are unsubstantiated even though the regulators require no independent safety testing of genetically engineered crops before they are commercialized for food.

The food and agrichemical and seed industry interests have brushed aside those concerns, and have acknowledged that they fear consumers will turn away from foods clearly labeled GMO in favor of non-GMO, natural or organic products.

Consumer advocates accused Stabenow of selling out consumer interests to appease food and big agriculture interests, such as Monsanto Co., the chief purveyor of GMO seed technology. But Stabenow defended the deal.

“For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients,” Stabenow said in a statement. “Throughout this process I worked to ensure that any agreement would recognize the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food.”

The Senate is in session next week and could take the bill up, while the U.S. House of Representatives is in recess until after the Fourth of July holiday. Consumer advocates promise not to let labeling go down without a fight.

“This is still completely unacceptable to the nine out of ten Americans who want to be able to understand what they are buying,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union. “It doesn’t give people the choice they want. What has to be done now is stop this bill from getting through the Senate.”

Will Senate Democrats Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory on GMO Labeling?

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Update June 27: A new “compromise” bill announced by Senator Stabenow is “completely unacceptable” and worse than the original bill, say consumer advocates. Read the latest news here.

By Stacy Malkan

Nearly 90% of Americans say genetically engineered food should be labeled, with high support across all ages, races and political affiliations, according to a December 2015 Mellman Group poll. It’s hard to think of a political issue that shares such broad appeal. Belief in our right to know what’s in our food is as American as apple pie.

Now, after a hard-fought battle led by millions of consumers and the nation’s largest environmental, health and consumer groups, we are winning that right. Large food companies from General Mills to Kellogg to Campbell’s have said they are putting labels on food products to indicate if they are produced with genetic engineering.

Is it possible to undo this progress? Could the new food labels actually roll back to the factories to be replaced by incomprehensible black blobs called QR codes?

Are Senate Democrats, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, about to make a deal that will stop GMO labeling in its tracks?

spaghettiosThe agrichemical industry is swarming the U.S. Senate right now with a last-ditch lobbying effort to pass the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act, and thereby nullify state labeling efforts. They have just a few weeks left to get this done before Vermont implements the nation’s first mandatory GMO labeling law July 1.

The House of Representatives passed the DARK Act last year. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said at the time in a CNN op ed, “The fact that Congress is even considering a proposal to deny Americans basic information about their food speaks to overwhelming power of these corporate lobbyists over the public interest.”

All eyes are now on Sen. Stabenow, who, according to the Hagstrom Report, just proposed new language for a “compromise.” This may or may not include QR codes, an 800 number, or some other way of claiming “mandatory” labeling while allowing food companies to remove the words “genetic engineering” from the new labels that are already on their way to a store near you.

Details on the compromise are murky. But one thing is clear: as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Stabenow holds the keys to decide whether or not Americans will finally get clear, on-package GMO labels that are already required in 64 other countries around the world.

Both sides are doing their best to influence her. As Politico reported, organic industry leaders held a fundraiser for Sen. Stabenow in March, just days before the last vote on the DARK Act, and organic industry leaders donated several thousand dollars to her campaign in 2015 and 2016.

A review of Federal Election Commission filings for donations to Sen. Stabenow’s campaign from corporations and trade groups over the past five years found little from the organic industry – just one donation from the Organic Trade Association in 2012 for $2,500.

Big food, chemical and agribusiness groups, meanwhile, donated well over $100,000 to her campaign in that time period, including a combined $60,000 from Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Bayer and ConAgra.

Those corporations were among the top 10 donors to anti-labeling campaigns that spent over $100 million to defeat GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California, Washington, Oregon and California – using dirty tricks to do so, such as mailers from fake front groups, false claims in ads and voter guides, and the largest money laundering operation in Washington State election history.

Why are these companies so afraid to give Americans an informed choice about GMOs in our food?

Big agribusiness groups are sending the message that it’s none of our business what’s in our food and how it’s produced. Political cartoonist Rick Friday learned that lesson the hard way when he was recently fired from his job of 21 years at Iowa’s Farm News for pointing out in a cartoon that top executives at Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere made more money last year than 2,129 Iowa farmers.

What else don’t these companies want us to know about our food?

The fact is, most genetically engineered crops are engineered to survive chemical herbicides, which is great for chemical company profits but not so good for farmers and families in GMO-growing communities such as Hawaii, Argentina and Iowa – or for the rest of us who may be eating food every day that contains glyphosate, which was recently classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization’s cancer panel.

The good news is, consumer demand for transparency is now too loud to ignore.

State drives for GMO labeling succeeded in educating millions of people that our most important food crops have been genetically engineered with no transparency. Vermont’s labeling law is a victory for the nation and food companies are already well on their way to labeling GMOs for the first time in the U.S. history.

If the agrichemical lobby succeeds in pushing Democrats to accept a Dark Act deal that involves anything less than mandatory on-package labeling, Sen. Stabenow will be forever remembered for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for our right to know what’s in our food.

This story originally appeared in Huffington Post. Want more food for thought? Sign up for the USRTK Newsletter.