U.S. GMO food labeling bill passes Senate

A customer picks up produce near a sign supporting a ballot initiative in Washington state that would require labelling of foods containing genetically modified crops at the Central Co-op in Seattle, Washington October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

By Chris Prentice

(Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would for the first time require food to carry labels listing genetically-modified ingredients, which labeling supporters say could create loopholes for some U.S. crops.

The Senate voted 63-30 for the bill that would display GMO contents with words, pictures or a bar code that can be scanned with smartphones. The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) would decide which ingredients would be considered genetically modified.

The measure now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass.

Drawing praise from farmers, the bill sponsored by Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas and Democrat Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan is the latest attempt to introduce a national standard that would override state laws, including Vermont’s that some say is more stringent, and comes amid growing calls from consumers for greater transparency.

“This bipartisan bill ensures that consumers and families throughout the United States will have access, for the first time ever, to information about their food through a mandatory, nationwide label for food products with GMOs,” Stabenow said in a statement.

A nationwide standard is favored by the food industry, which says state-by-state differences could inflate costs for labeling and distribution. But mandatory GMO labeling of any kind would still be seen as a loss for Big Food, which has spent millions lobbying against it.

Farmers lobbied against the Vermont law, worrying that labeling stigmatizes GMO crops and could hurt demand for food containing those ingredients, but have applauded this law.

Critics like Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, say the bill’s vague language and allowance for electronic labels for scanning could limit its scope and create confusion.

“When parents go to the store and purchase food, they have the right to know what is in the food their kids are going to be eating,” Sanders said on the floor of the Senate ahead of the vote.

He said at a news conference this week that major food manufacturers have already begun labeling products with GMO ingredients to meet the new law in his home state.

Another opponent of the bill, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, said it would institute weak federal requirements making it virtually impossible for consumers to access information about GMOs.


Food ingredients like beet sugar and soybean oil, which can be derived from genetically-engineered crops but contain next to no genetic material by the time they are processed, may not fall under the law’s definition of a bioengineered food, critics say.

GMO corn may also be excluded thanks to ambiguous language, some said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised concerns about the involvement of the USDA in a list of worries sent in a June 27 memo to the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In a letter to Stabenow last week, the USDA’s general counsel tried to quell those worries, saying it would include commercially-grown GMO corn, soybeans, sugar and canola crops.

The vast majority of corn, soybeans and sugar crops in the United States are produced from genetically-engineered seeds. The domestic sugar market has been strained by rising demand for non-GMO ingredients like cane sugar.

The United States is the world’s largest market for foods made with genetically altered ingredients. Many popular processed foods are made with soybeans, corn and other biotech crops whose genetic traits have been manipulated, often to make them resistant to insects and pesticides.

“It’s fair to say that it’s not the ideal bill, but it is certainly the bill that can pass, which is the most important right now,” said American Soybean Association’s (ASA) director of policy communications Patrick Delaney.

The association was part of the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, which lobbied for what labeling supporters termed the Deny Americans the Right to Know, or DARK Act, that would have made labeling voluntary. It was blocked by the Senate in March.

(Reporting by Chris Prentice in New York; Additional reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago, Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Kouichi Shirayanagi and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Ed Davies)

U.S. environmentalists sue to overturn approval of GMO salmon

An AquAdvantage Salmon is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by AquaBounty Technologies

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. health regulators are facing a lawsuit from a coalition of environmental organizations seeking to overturn the government’s landmark approval of a type of genetically engineered salmon to be farmed for human consumption.

The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth and other groups allege in the lawsuit, filed on Wednesday, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failed to consider all of the environmental risks of the fish when the agency approved it in November.

The FDA also cleared the product, made by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, without having the proper authority to regulate genetically engineered animals produced for food, according to the complaint.

The agency declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday. Its approval of AquaBounty salmon followed a 20-year review and was the first such approval for an animal whose DNA has been scientifically modified.

AquaBounty is confident the FDA’s approval will stand, Chief Executive Ron Stotish said in a statement. The agency was “extraordinarily thorough and transparent in the review and approval of our application,” he said.

The company has said its salmon can grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon, saving time and resources.

However, the FDA approval process included “an extremely limited environmental assessment” that did not fully evaluate the potential for AquaBounty salmon to escape from the facilities where they are grown, among other risks, according to the lawsuit.

The legal challenge comes as the U.S. food industry is facing increased pressure from consumers to provide more information about the use of genetically engineered ingredients.

General Mills Inc and other major food companies are rolling out new disclosures on products to comply with a Vermont law that will require labels on foods made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Major retailers, including Kroger Co and Target Corp, have already said they do not plan to stock AquaBounty salmon on store shelves. It is not yet available for sale.

Activists worry the FDA’s approval of the salmon will serve as a precedent for other genetically engineered food animals.

Their lawsuit seeks to prohibit the FDA from taking further action on the fish or any other genetically engineered animal for human consumption until Congress grants an agency clear authority over such products.

The case is Institute for Fisheries Resources et al v Sylvia Mathews Burwell et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 16-cv-01574.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Richard Pullin and Andrew Hay)

Food and Drug Administration Approves Genetically Altered Salmon

For many years, studies and controversy, the debate has raged on regarding genetically engineered salmon and has concluded with an approval from the Food and Drug administration. This would be the nation’s first genetically altered animal, although people already eat genetically manufactured  (GM) corn, soybeans and potatoes.

AquAdvantage, produced by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty, is an Atlantic salmon that contains chromosomes from an Atlantic salmon, a growth hormone from Chinook salmon, and a gene from the eel-like ocean pout. The result is a fish that is large enough for consumption in about a year and a half, rather than the typical three years.

According to NBC news, the decision, which has taken five years, is certain to anger consumer groups who want companies to be forced to label GM foods and environmental groups who are afraid the modified fish will breed with wild fish.

“The scientific review is clear. There is no credible evidence that these fish are a risk to either human health or the environment,” Dr. William Muir, a genetics and aquaculture professor at Purdue University said in a statement

The FDA also said it would not require companies to label genetically modified food but would recommend guidelines if companies wanted to voluntarily label their products.

Several retailers have said they won’t sell the GMO fish, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and others.

In a report by the Smithsonian, the FDA is currently reviewing genetically engineered mosquitoes that were designed to combat illnesses such as dengue and chikungunya. Millions of the mosquitoes are already in the Cayman Islands, Panama, Malaysia and Brazil.  A fierce debate is ongoing for a proposed field trial in Key Haven, Florida.

Poultry Producers Attempt Genetically Modified Chickens to Fight Bird Flu

A group of poultry producers are working with scientists to create a strain of genetically modified chickens that would be immune to bird flu.

The study is also being supported by funding from the British government.  So far, the scientists have created chickens that show “early promise” for fighting off the disease.

Over 48 million chicken and turkeys have been put down in the US because of bird flu since December.

“The public is obviously aware of these outbreaks when they’re reported and wondering why there’s not more done to control it,” said Laurence Tiley, a senior lecturer in molecular virology at the University of Cambridge who is involved in the experiments, told Reuters.

The chicks in the study, who have been injected with dye to glow in the dark and stand out from non-modified chicks, are showing an initial immunity to the virus and also have been unable to spread the virus to other animals.  The genetic codes of the birds are being changed to trick the virus into reproducing a decoy virus rather than itself.

GMO animals have been a source of concern for the Food and Drug Administration, who have been examining GMO salmon for the last 20 years.  The agency deemed the animals safe for human consumption in 2010 but continue to study them.

Opponents say that like GMO crops the animals would contribute to health and environmental problems.