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letters | debate rages over gmo labeling

Responsive government should embrace labels for genetic engineering

The Aug. 3 editorial “Science, not fear, should guide food labeling laws” assumes that the purpose of food labeling laws is “providing valid health and safety information to consumers.” However, this is only one relatively minor function of labels. Most required labels are simply information — ingredients, additives, previously frozen, from concentrate, homogenized, country of origin.

The Food and Drug Administration requires labeling of irradiated foods, even though the FDA has determined that they are safe to eat, in large part because so many consumers wrote to the agency requesting that such products be labeled. The FDA also requires labeling whether certain ingredients come from animal sources, so that vegetarians and those with a religious or other dietary restriction can readily identify those foods. These are so-called material facts, under food and drug law, which means they must be labeled. Whether something is genetically engineered is also, in our view, a material fact.

The Globe further states that “ ‘genetically modified’ is a slippery term” and that “virtually all crops have been genetically modified by humans over the last 10,000 years.” Not really. “Genetic modification” and “genetic engineering” are widely used to refer to technologies that can only be done in the laboratory and that have only been in use for the past 30 years.


Traditional breeding can only cross plants within a species or that are closely related. However, genetic engineering in a laboratory can move genetic material from any living thing into another. These techniques are new and in many ways untested.

More than 60 countries, which collectively include more than half the world’s population, have passed laws requiring labeling of such foods. Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have done the same, and many more states are considering labeling laws.

For Congress to try to prohibit such state laws is grossly undemocratic. Requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods, rather than undermining the credibility of the labeling system, as you suggest, could actually enhance it, since consumers would see that their government is responsive to their needs.

Michael Hansen, senior scientist

Consumers Union, Yonkers, N.Y.