Guest Column: Making labeling of GMO foods a reality in Illinois

By Dev Gowda
Illinois PIRG (Public Interest Research Group)
and Jessica Fujan
Food and Water Watch

As you gaze into your cereal bowl, you may find comfort in thinking that all you need to learn about what’s in your food is never more than a nutrition label away. However, there might be something in your food that you won’t find on a label — genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, or genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Right now, Illinois consumer groups and activists are working with corporations and the legislature to provide GMO labeling.

GE foods are found in most processed foods at nearly all of our grocery stores. Crops such as corn, soybeans, cottonseed oil and sugar beets are being grown using technology that introduces genetic material from one species to another species to produce a desired trait. These ingredients often find their way from farm, to food processor, to fork with no independent safety testing and no label to reveal their presence to consumers.

Most GMO crops in the United States are designed to withstand increased use of herbicides and pesticides. This can lead to chemical-resistant weeds and insects, which pushes farmers to both increase the dosages and return to using older, more toxic chemicals. The increased use of toxic chemicals and the creation of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” clearly impact the environment and public health.

While consumers might suppose that the products they’re eating have been proven to be safe, in fact GMO ingredients do not usually undergo independent pre-market safety testing — a step that the American Medical Association has called for. This exemption from safety testing arose because in the early 1990s, the FDA thought there was little risk genetic engineering could lead to unforeseen consequences — though 10 years later, with a more robust understanding of the science, they backpedaled and acknowledged that GMO-derived foods pose a “greater likelihood that some of the new substances will be significantly different from substances that have a history of safe use in food.”

Illinois State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, and thousands of Illinois consumers are setting out to change that. The Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act, S.B. 1666, would require foods in Illinois containing GE ingredients to be labeled as such. S.B. 1666 is awaiting a hearing in the Illinois Senate Agriculture and Conservation Committee.

It’s only logical that consumers are demanding more information about the food they’re putting into their bodies. People are becoming far more educated about our food system and labels are a large part of that education.

In response to this demand, private companies are choosing to label their products voluntarily. Whole Foods has promised to label all products in their stores for GMOs by 2018. However, Jewel-Osco, one of the largest grocery chains in Illinois, has not yet promised to label GMOs. Illinois PIRG launched a grassroots campaign earlier this year calling on Jewel-Osco to label store-brand foods that contain GMOs. So far, the campaign has collected more than 1,000 petition signatures and recently organized a statewide call-in day to Jewel-Osco headquarters. Numerous organizations at both the state and national level have signed on to the Jewel-Osco GMO labeling campaign, including the Illinois Public Health Association and the Center for Biological Diversity, as well as many Illinois schools, restaurants and grocery co-ops.

Polls consistently show that 90 percent of Americans support GMO labeling. Jewel-Osco and Illinois legislators should heed this overwhelming public demand and support GMO/GE food labeling.

Consumers can go to to tell Illinois lawmakers to support GE labeling, and to sign a petition asking Jewel-Osco to label store-brand foods that contain GMOs.

April 2-8, 2014 issue

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