EWG's Ken Cook Lends Support for Washington State's GMO Labeling Initiative

Testimony of Kenneth A. Cook President, Environmental Working Group

Agriculture, Water & Rural Economic Development Committee

Washington State Senate February 14, 2013

Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on behalf of Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization that uses the power of information to protect the environment and human health. I earned my B.S. (agriculture) and M.S. (soil science) degrees from the College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri. EWG’s mission, and our longstanding involvement in agriculture and food policy, is directly relevant to the legislation in reference today, SI 522, labeling of Genetically Engineered Food.

EWG has been involved in national and state efforts to ensure that people in the United States are accorded the same right people have in over 60 countries around the world. That is the right to know if the food they eat and feed to their families has been genetically engineered.

As you may know, at the federal level several hundred organizations have petitioned the federal government to label genetically engineered food. Over 1.2 million people have signed a petition prepared by our colleagues at the Center for Food Safety and submitted to the Food and Drug Administration, a record number for the agency across all the issues in its jurisdiction. Approximately 10 percent of those signatories are supporters of Environmental Working Group.

Of the 21,000 EWG supporters in Washington, 2,785 signed that federal petition—in my world an indicator of extraordinarily intense engagement with the issue.

Last November, over 6 million Californians, 48.6 percent of those voting, supported Proposition 37, a ballot measure that would have required the labeling of genetically engineered food. That is to say, the measure was narrowly defeated despite some $46 million spent by pesticide and big food companies to kill the initiative, roughly five times the amount spent by supporters.

Mr. Chairman, I think you will find a continuum of views underlying public support for labeling genetically engineered food. For EWG’s part, our rationale is as follows.

First, my organization does not oppose the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, per se.

However, we cannot support the introduction of those technologies in the absence of much more robust, independent and impartial government pre-­‐market health and safety standards and procedures before such technologies are allowed in food. In our view, the current federal regulatory regime, in place since genetic engineering was introduced into agricultural commerce, is woefully outdated and falls far short of what is necessary.

Moreover, as currently constituted, the only “early warning system” in this system to detect and respond to any human health or environmental problems that may arise once a genetically engineered crop or animal is introduced into commerce rests entirely with the companies that stand to profit from their continued sale. Unlike the case with pesticides, for instance, the federal government does not continuously monitor potential impacts of genetically engineered agriculture on human health or the environment or revisit previous approvals in response to emerging science.

We are particularly concerned because some of the very companies that currently supply the most widely used genetically engineered products to agriculture are ones that, in the past, have failed for various reasons to disclose major human health and environmental risks posed by their products. In our experience, this history very much weighs on the minds of consumers, in Washington and elsewhere.

Given those circumstances—the absence of robust federally mandated health and safety studies and the disturbing degree of self-­‐regulation and self-­‐monitoring for genetically engineered food—we believe labeling is absolutely essential for consumers.

Mr. Chairman, the essential issue here is one of giving the people of Washington the right to know and the freedom to choose the content of the food they purchase voluntarily for themselves and their families. The bill at hand would extend the same right and freedom to consumers in Washington that consumers take for granted in England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, India and many other countries.

I had the privilege last year of discussing genetically engineered food as part of a panel of experts convened for the Tri-­‐State Wheat Growers 2012 Convention. The debate was spirited and, I believe, informative. Mr. Chairman, I ask to include in the record what I consider to be a very fair treatment of that panel discussion in a recent issue of Wheat Life magazine.

Mr. Chairman, I may disagree with the conclusion the Washington Association of Wheat Growers has reached with regard to SI 522, but I have nothing but respect for the spirit of inquiry and the due diligence with which the organization’s leaders have examined the issue. They have a great deal at stake.

In the course of visiting wheat farms over several days last November, I came to appreciate, in some small measure, the challenges and pressures those farmers face earning a living for their families from the land. I came away greatly impressed with their sense of stewardship, their ingenuity, their love of the land.

One of their challenges, of course, is the overwhelming importance of exports to markets where labeling of genetically engineered food is the law of the land.

I learned first hand that while Washington wheat farmers have so far rejected wheat that has been genetically engineered out of concern for potential impacts in export markets where labeling is required, they are equally reluctant to reject altogether a technology that might provide other beneficial traits, either to farmers, consumers, or both. Indeed, who knows what the future may bring for genetically engineered wheat or other crops, or for that matter for animal agriculture? Federal authorities appear to be on the verge of allowing highly controversial genetically engineered apples and salmon onto the market—in the face of significant opposition from farm and fishing interests, a regulatory regime that we and many others consider outdated and inadequate—and of course with no labeling.

But Mr. Chairman, here is what we do know. Labeling requirements for genetically engineered food in Washington’s prime wheat export markets are not going away. Genetically engineered food will always be labeled in the countries that label it now; their consumers demand it. And more countries are likely to adopt labeling of genetically engineered food in the years ahead.

That has been the trend. Indeed, transparency is the future of the global food system: consumer information about what’s in food, who produced it, how and where it was produced. There is no turning back from that path. If anything, companies opposed to labeling of genetically engineered food in the United States have managed to heighten interest in labeling globally, and have awakened unprecedented interest in this country as well. Witness the efforts in dozens of states to bring labeling laws to legislatures or the ballot box. I can promise you that those efforts will continue until genetically engineered food is labeled.

For proponents of genetically engineered food, the answer to consumer concerns is clear. It is not to hide the presence of such ingredients in food, or to resist or overturn labeling laws. The only answer is to disclose the presence of genetically engineered ingredients and foods to consumers, and convince consumers why they should accept it. That’s the way markets are supposed to work, isn’t it? Buyers acting on full information. If a company is going to introduce, or make use of, genetically engineered foods, and earn money doing so, the obligation properly falls on those companies to secure consumer acceptance.

No food company executive would testify before you today that the future of his or her industry lies in keeping from their customers information about food ingredients and their sources. In fact, a posture of secrecy, an attitude of telling consumers that they aren’t entitled to information if they don’t interpret it in the way food or pesticide companies prefer, is just about the last message anyone serving customers in the food system would want to convey today—if they wanted to stay in business, that is. And the companies and segments within the food system that prioritize their customers’ right to know and freedom to choose are the growth centers of the industry. Organic agriculture, an increasingly strong presence in this state and nationally, comes to mind.

SI 522 is a sensible, straightforward labeling measure. Unlike Proposition 37 in California, it makes no reference to natural food. The option for civil enforcement action is unambiguously and tightly delimited, providing only for reasonable court costs and attorney’s fees—no damages. Ironically, that is exactly the formulation proposed in other contexts (medical malpractice torts for instance) by commercial interests seeking to sharply curb if not eliminate incentives for civil litigation.

Consistent with labeling of genetically engineered food in other countries, SI 522 aims at processed or whole foods sold in retail establishments. Frequent labeling changes are constants in that sector. No country that has instituted labeling of genetically engineered food has reported increased food cost associated with that labeling, including countries exquisitely more sensitive to any increase in food costs (China, India) than we are in the United States.

Just as restaurant menus today do not list ingredients, so will restaurant food in Washington be exempt from the labeling requirements of SI 522. Such exemption for the food service sector has been standard policy in countries that already label genetically engineered food.

Meat and other animal protein that has not itself been genetically engineered will not require labeling, even if the animals have been fed genetically engineered feed.

Mr. Chairman, my organization and many others are working for federal labeling of genetically engineered food. But until that day comes it is entirely appropriate for Washington to take the lead in this matter, as you have in so many others. Indeed, should Washington adopt this initiative—and I am convinced that will happen—labeling of genetically engineered food inevitably and quickly will become a national reality.

I would be remiss in not thanking Senator Maralyn Chase for the invitation to testify today, and the many leaders in Washington working day and night to make SI 522 the law of the state. They will succeed.

I also wish to acknowledge sister organizations whose pioneering work across the nation predated EWG’s, and has made the labeling of genetically engineered food inevitable in the United States: the Center For Food Safety, Organic Consumers Association, Consumers Union, Food Democracy Now, Union of Concerned Scientists, Food and Water Watch, and the hundreds of public interest, health, religious, food and farming organizations that have united through the Just Label It Campaign of Organic Voices to achieve federal labeling of genetically engineered food.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you again for the opportunity to testify and stand ready to answer any questions you may have. 

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