Quick Hit La Risa Lynch Thursday September 19th, 2013, 5:37pm

Hearing On The Pros & Cons Of Labeling Genetically Engineered Foods Sparks Intense Debate

Lourdes Garcia is resolute in her belief that genetically modified foods sickened her two small children.

“They had allergies, ADHD and the baby had a tumor,” said Garcia, a native of Brazil who has lived in Chicago for 20 years. “I had to just find out what the problem was, and that’s when I started doing research”

That research led her to genetically modified organisms or GMOs, which she believes contributed to her children’s poor health. So she changed the family’s diet, opting for more organic foods instead. Over time, her children’s health improved.

“All the health problems they had no longer exist,” Garcia said of her sons, now 14 and 19. “To me, food was food, and all the food was good. But I was wrong.”

Now Garcia is among a growing chorus of Americans who are demanding that genetically modified or engineered foods be labeled as such. The effort, she contends, is about consumer’s right to know what’s in their food.

“We can only exercise our democratic rights if there is transparency, and hiding things from the public is not the right way to approach democracy,” Garcia said.

On Tuesday, an Illinois Senate subcommittee took up the labeling debate surrounding genetically engineered (GE) or modified foods. Tuesday’s packed hearing of mostly pro-labeling supporters was the last of three held in the state for Senate Bill 1666. Although the meeting was open to the public, only written comments were accepted. After the hearing, a small group of those supporting GE-labeling rallied outside the State of Illinois Building, located at 100 W Randolph St.

State Senator David Koehler (D-Peoria) sponsored the bill, which would require any food that is for retail sale in Illinois be labeled as a modified food if it is entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering. The bill is currently sitting in committee.

Representatives on both sides of the debate spoke at the two-hour hearing held at the Michael Bilandic Building, 160 North LaSalle St. Opponents, who included famers, bioengineering companies and retail associations, contend that GE foods have been stocked on store shelves for decades and that 70 percent of processed foods contain some genetically-engineered ingredients. GE foods already in the US food chain include soybeans, corn, sugar beets, papaya, squash and rapeseed used to make canola oil.

They claim labeling foods as GE infers that those products are somehow unsafe when there’s no evidence of adverse health consequences. But proponents argue that’s exactly why GE foods should be labeled because the science is still inconclusive. They contend splicing the DNA of seeds could introduce new toxins, allergens and change nutrition with unintended consequences.

Genetically modified foods are foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been changed in a way that does not occur naturally. Genetically engineered foods have had genes from other plants or animals inserted into their genetic codes.

“The chronic effects of eating GE foods are still largely unknown, and without labeling GE foods, we cannot associate any health problems with people who ate them because we don’t know who ate them,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch.

On the contrary, David Miller, president of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization, contends that GMO foods are safe, have been in existence for thousands of years, and are regulated “up to the wazoo.”

“As a nation, we have ingested an estimated three trillion meals which includes GMO food advances without any documented ill affects – no sneezes, no coughs (and) certainly no illness or deaths to show for them,” he said.

There are environmental benefits to genetic engineering of foods. Miller noted they create better crop yields because many are disease and drought resistance, use less pesticide and provide food security in countries dealing with famine and malnutrition.

But advocates say labeling GE foods would put the US in line with other industrialized countries. The US has no federal requirement to label GE foods. Meanwhile, over 60 countries, including Japan, China, Russia and the European Union have laws mandating the disclosure of GE foods on labels.

Pushing state laws, they contend, would force the US' hand. Illinois is among 30 states to have legislative initiatives or campaigns urging GE labeling. Two states, Connecticut and Maine have passed GE-labeling laws, but they have not been enacted.

A ballot initiative in California, Prop 37, which failed by the slightest of margins,  called for the labeling of foods that are genetically engineered. There has even been movement in Congress with the the Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act, which was introduced in April.

“When the federal government has not met the needs of citizens and consumers, then states often have to step up and provide something that fulfills that need,” Lovera said.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows companies to voluntarily label GE food products, Lovera noted that rarely occurs.

“Relying on voluntary labeling, voluntary disclosure of generic engineered food has not worked,” Lovera said, noting that food labeling mandates exist for nutrition information and country of origin.

“We currently have a right to know how much fat and sodium is in our food … but we don’t know if the foods we’re eating are genetically engineered,” she pointed out.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Louis Finkel said consumers already have a choice. They can purchase certified organic foods, which Finkel said are GE-free.

But William King, a University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health professor, called labeling GE/GMO foods a consumer protection issue.

“Senate Bill 1666 is a consumer protection bill and, without question, giving consumers more information about the food they eat is good public policy,” he said.

Koehler, who introduced the bill in February, also approached this hot-button issue from a consumer awareness standpoint, although scientists and experts on both sides made compelling arguments.

“In this age of transparency, when we try to make everything more accessible and available to the public, why would we not want to allow people the opportunity to know what’s in the food they eat,” Koehler asked.

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