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Genetically Modified Foods In The Spotlight

Calls for labeling, enhanced regulatory oversight grew

by Britt E. Erickson
December 21, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 49

Credit: AquaBounty Technologies
FDA cleared the way this year for a genetically engineered salmon, which grows faster than nonmodified salmon, to enter the U.S. market.
A genetically engineered salmon.
Credit: AquaBounty Technologies
FDA cleared the way this year for a genetically engineered salmon, which grows faster than nonmodified salmon, to enter the U.S. market.

U.S. regulators gave the green light this year to a few new genetically modified foods, including apples engineered to resist browning and an Atlantic salmon that is engineered to grow faster than nonmodified salmon. Neither product will be required to carry a label indicating that it contains genetically modified ingredients. The approvals angered consumer activists, environmental groups, apple producers, and others who say bioengineered varieties should be labeled as genetically modified.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives stepped into the food labeling debate this year, passing a bill (H.R. 1599) in July that would prohibit U.S. states from requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. In the absence of federal action, several states have been considering laws that would require such labeling.

The food industry supports H.R. 1599, claiming that state laws with varying labeling requirements pose a threat to interstate commerce and lead to inconsistent and confusing information. Environmental activists and organic farmers oppose the bill, saying it would deny consumers the right to know what is in their food.

It was also a notable year for genetically modified crops in the European Union, where historically, cultivation of such crops has been met with resistance. A law was proposed in March that would have given EU countries the option of banning the cultivation of particular genetically modified crops even if the crops are approved in the EU.

Numerous activist groups and the U.S. government spoke out against the EU proposal, saying it was inconsistent with free-trade agreements and would weaken the EU economy. In October, the European Parliament rejected the draft law, potentially putting an end to the idea. The European Commission is now talking with the individual EU countries about potential next steps.

The U.S. is also considering changes to its regulatory system for genetically modified products. In July, the White House directed federal agencies with jurisdiction over biotechnology to overhaul the current system, which hasn’t been updated since 1992. Officials stressed the importance of ensuring that the federal government efficiently assesses any risks associated with future products of biotechnology.


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