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Barbara Boxer talks tough for GE food labeling

Undaunted by last year’s defeat of a similar ballot measure, U.S. Barbara Boxer is talking tough in support of her bill to requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Boxer, D-Calif., was at Clif Bar’s Emeryville headquarters Thursday to tout her “Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act,” S.809, which she introduced a few weeks ago. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has introduced a companion House bill.

Boxer at Clif Bar 5-2-13“We deserve to have the right to know what’s in the foods we eat,” Boxer said, noting she first introduced a similar bill 13 years ago when public support was far less than it is today. “If these companies believe in their products, they should have nothing to fear.”

Boxer’s said more than 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of genetically engineered foods. The Food and Drug Administration now requires labeling of more than 3,000 ingredients, additives and processes, but in a 1992 policy statement allowed genetically engineered foods to be marketed without labeling, claiming that these foods were not “materially” different from other foods because the genetic differences could not be recognized by taste, smell or other senses.

But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has recognized that these foods are materially different and novel for patent purposes, Boxer noted, and more than 1.5 million Americans have filed comments with the FDA urging the agency to label GE foods.

The food industry spent about $46 million last year to defeat California’s Proposition 37, a similar labeling measure, Boxer said Thursday. But she noted the Senate and House bills already have several dozen co-sponsors and around a hundred organizational supporters, and with more than 20 states currently considering their own labeling bills, it would be better to have a single federal standard than a state-by-state patchwork.

“Let’s trust each other to make the right decisions for our families,” she said. “I think we’re on the way to success.”

Asked whether she herself believes genetically engineered foods could be harmful, she said she preferred to answer as a mother and grandmother rather than as a lawmaker. Determining the safety of such foods requires long-term scientific study, and that’s not yet been accomplished, she said: “I’m very conservative when it comes to this.”

UPDATE @ 2:52 P.M.: Actually, genetically engineered crops have been studied and deemed safe hundreds of times in recent decades. And a review of two dozen long-term studies, published last year in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, found genetically modified crops had no effects on the animals that ate them. And the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year issued a statement saying “foods containing ingredients from genetically modified (GM) crops pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding techniques.”

The Boxer and DeFazio bills would require clear labels for genetically engineered whole foods and processed foods, including fish and seafood; the FDA would be directed to write new labeling standards consistent with other U.S. and international standards. So far, 64 nations already require labeling of GE foods, including all the member of the European Union, Russia, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand.

Boxer acknowledged Thursday her bill would not cover beef or milk from cows that consume genetically modified corn.

Boxer was flanked at the news conference by Clif Bar CEO Kevin Cleary; Jessica Lundberg of Richvale, Calif., rice producer Lundberg Family Farms; and restauranteur Charles Phan, best known for the Slanted Door in San Francisco.

“This is very exciting for us,” Lundberg said. “Consumers are concerned about the purity of their food, the nutrition of their food, and how their food is grown.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.