Engineering Trouble: Biotechnology and Its Discontents

By Rachel A. Schurman; Dennis Doyle Takahashi Kelso | Go to book overview

5
Eating Risk
The Politics of Labeling Genetically
Engineered Foods
Julie Guthman

The commercial release of genetically engineered agricultural products has been synchronic with the rising tide of public concern about the risks and failures of industrialized agriculture. Whether an unfortunate coincidence for the biotechnology industry or another addition to a mountain of evidence, the degree to which the battle over agricultural biotechnology has corresponded with other food scares—such as meat poisoned by E. coli 0157:117 or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease)—is surely striking. Because organic agriculture is often regarded as the antidote to agro-food industrialization, the movement for organic agriculture has intersected with this latest round of food fights in interesting ways. As but one example, antibiotech activists were able to build on the outpouring of opposition that occurred when the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its first proposed rules for organic agriculture in 1997 (rules that have since been modified and finalized). The USDA's ill-timed inclusion of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) within definitions of what constitutes “organic” contributed to public awareness of the extent to which GEOs are already part of the nation's food supply. Fallout from this incident stepped up the call for broader government oversight, even before the more recent wave of regulatory embarrassments, including the StarLink corn incident (see the introduction to this volume) and cases of contamination of organic fields and products with GE organisms. 1

Labeling, a mode of regulation that has defined the organic industry, is one of the vehicles being debated for government oversight of GEOs. Yet, in 1992, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) temporarily foreclosed mandatory labeling by ruling that food made with genetically altered crops was substantially equivalent to conventionally grown food, thereby dismissing the need for informational labels. When Vermont voters passed a

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