Let Americans know what's in their food

Story highlights

  • U.S. House set to vote on Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act
  • John Conyers: Bill is a serious attack on transparency

Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, is the ranking member on the Committee on the Judiciary. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)One morning, just over a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt threw his breakfast sausages out of a White House window.

That, at least, is how one humorist painted the picture of the President upon reading Upton Sinclair's now-classic novel "The Jungle," set amidst the severe and unsanitary conditions of Chicago's turn-of-the-century slaughterhouses. Since that breakfast episode, many laws -- starting with Roosevelt's Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 -- have been passed to strengthen national health and sanitation standards. Yet from Roosevelt's time to today, a simple fact remains the same:
Americans want to know what's in their food.
    This week, the House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill that would take unprecedented steps to deny us all the right to know basic information about what we eat.
    John Conyers
    The Orwellianly-titled "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act," HR 1599, would bar the Food and Drug Administration from introducing mandatory labeling of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) foods and ban states from doing the same -- even if voters demand such labeling through a ballot measure. The bill would also block many state and local efforts to protect farmers and the public from concerns including seed and pesticide drift and would forbid states from making it illegal for companies to label GMO products as "natural," as Connecticut has done.
    The bill is a serious attack on transparency and presents a dubious one-size-fits-all approach to federal policy making. Most importantly, it presents a potentially serious threat to our long-term health.
    In a landmark report this year, the World Health Organization revealed a weed-killer called glyphosate to be a probable cause of cancer. The chemical, also known as Roundup, is considered safer than some other herbicides, but it's being used increasingly often in growing quantities as farmers around the world attempt to drown out new weeds that have become resistant to the chemical's effects. This overzealous use of herbicides is made possible by a recent innovation: corn, soy, and other crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand heavy use of the chemicals. The issue, therefore, isn't just GMOs on their own -- it's the increasing use of herbicides that GMOs enable.
    This is why voters in Vermont passed a ballot initiative to require GMO labeling. It's why 64 countries around the world require GMO labels. It's why, according to recent polling, more than 90% of Americans support mandatory labeling for these crops.
    The proposal before Congress this week isn't simply about denying Americans the right to know what's in their food. As the text of the bill stands right now, HR 1599 could potentially block state and local efforts to regulate GMO crops and related chemicals to protect farm workers and rural residents from economic and environmental damages. This is particularly troubling when you consider that there are hundreds of elementary schools within 200 feet of a corn or soybean field, according to the Environmental Working Group.
    This should not be a partisan issue -- both parties purport to stand for transparency, and both parties should oppose a federal power-grab to prevent states and localities from making their own decisions regarding the protection of lives and property.
    So why has the bill been introduced?
    Proponents of HR 1599 claim it's essential to stop food labeling in order to prevent a spike in food prices. Yet companies change food labels frequently to highlight innovations, and countries with mandatory labeling have not encountered food price spikes attributable to anti-GMO backlash.
    While proponents claim that their proposal will still allow voluntary GMO labeling, the bill, as it stands now, outlaws any non-GMO claim unless approved through a new certification process to be created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Given that it took the department more than a decade to establish similar certifications for organic foods, this would effectively stop farmers and food companies from advertising the purity of their own food. Meanwhile, many of the corporate lobbyists who champion this proposal are the folks who are fighting to reject the claims of leading scientists that the liberal use of glyphosate and other chemicals could harm human health.
    Upton Sinclair, the author who appears to have awakened Teddy Roosevelt's interest in food safety, said it best: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
    The fact that Congress is even considering a proposal to deny Americans basic information about their food speaks to overwhelming power of these corporate lobbyists over the public interest.
    Knowing this, our 26th president would probably be unable to finish his breakfast.