Pesticides? Yes. GMOs? Maybe. Hormones? Maybe not.
ANH-USA’s executive and legal director, Gretchen DuBeau, was a member of the US delegation to the Codex Committee of Food Labeling (CCFL), which met in Canada last week. We were honored to bring the voice of the consumer to the table at Codex, especially since it is otherwise heavily influenced by big corporate interests.
The CCFL is responsible for setting organic food labeling standards—similar to our National Organic Standards Board, but on an international level. Food labeling, in this case, encompasses health claims and nutrient reference values, with a significant focus on GMOs. The committee works very closely with the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CNFSDU) by developing the labeling and defining the claims permitted in foods and dietary supplements. You may recall that ANH-USA represented you at the CNFSDU meeting last November in Germany.
At this meeting, four areas of concern were discussed:
- GMO labeling;
- Whether the pesticide ethylene may be used on organic produce;
- Organic standards for aquaculture and seaweed; and
- Biofortification of grains.
After years of heated debate, we thought the CCFL had finally put the issue of GMO labeling to rest: rather than adopting an official position, the committee decided to leave it to the discretion of individual countries. This year, however, there was a short-lived attempt to allow countries to label GMOs in accordance with national legislation.
Regarding non-fermented soybean products, for example, the working group wanted to include this language: “If genetically modified soybean is used in the process, it shall be indicated in the label in accordance with national legislation.” This language is hardly a mandate—it simply states that if GMOs are used, they should be labeled if the host country has GMO labeling laws.
But surprisingly, a number of member countries were outraged at the hint of anything that could possibly support GMO labeling, and the language was rejected. The US used its standard (and patently false) “GMO is not materially different” argument. Argentina was even more extreme, stating that the current Codex standards on biotechnology is actually discriminatory. They want to see more pro-GMO language in Codex!
Use of Ethylene
The committee also discussed whether to allow ethylene as a sprouting inhibitor for organic potatoes and onions, and if so, how it should be labeled. Ethylene is a widely used gas commonly employed to hasten the ripening of fruits. In the US, it is considered a pesticide, and is currently allowed in organic foods for the post-harvest ripening of tropical fruit and the de-greening of citrus. However, ethylene is toxic enough that the CCFL was also considering whether labeling should reflect worker safety concerns. Should a substance that is potentially hazardous to workers even be used in organics?
The European Union is pushing for the qualified use of ethylene in organic foods. Their data, however, was seriously lacking. They did not have any first-hand toxicological data on mammals, only secondary sources and reviews, and those indicated that ethylene exposure may result in asphyxia as well as an increased risk to the liver and nervous system—though they were unable to determine at what level this occurs. And they had no studies of the behavior of ethylene in the environment, though they predicted that the use of ethylene would be “unlikely” to contaminate water and soil “in significant amounts.”
Given that European Food Safety Authority itself identified data gaps in areas of significant concern, it is premature to allow the use of ethylene as a sprouting inhibitor for organic potatoes and onions. The desire to have certain potatoes and onions out of season should not override environmental and health risks.
Aquaculture and Seaweed
The CCFL is in the beginning stages of including aquaculture (the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic plants) in its standards for organic foods. By contrast, the US has still not developed certification standards for organic aquaculture products, even though we started the process back in 2000.
During last week’s discussions, the US asked for the explicit inclusion of animal feed as part of organic standards. In general, Codex guidelines have usually been applied to feed as well, but it is certainly not a bad thing to have it be included specifically in the language. For this request to come from the US is surprising, since organic feed for carnivorous fish has proved problematic in the US. Fish feed is not usually organically farmed—often they are wild-harvested feed fish. Current US organic standards demand that all certified organic livestock be fed 100% organic feed; the US hasn’t issued a final rule on this is as it relates to aquaculture.
Conventional fish are often grown in overcrowded tanks. Some members felt that the amount of individual space fish receive should be higher (the “stocking density” should be lower) for organic fish than for conventional aquaculture. Unfortunately, the US disagreed, citing a lack of scientific support. The committee is considering deleting any reference to a limit on stocking density, stating that the current organic standards protecting animal welfare are sufficient.
No agreement has been reached on the use of hormones in organic aquaculture and seafood. Canada pushed for the qualified use of hormones (supported by Japan and Brazil), but we are happy to report that the US was opposed to permitting hormones (as were other countries), since hormones contradict the market expectations of organic foods.
The CCFL is currently discussing the issue of labeling of biofortified foods. Biofortification is the idea of breeding crops to increase their nutritional value. Biofortification differs from ordinary fortification because it focuses on making plant foods more nutritious as the plants are growing, rather than having nutrients added to the foods when they are being processed.
The problem is that there is not even an accepted definition of biofortification. Biofortification can occur through traditional, natural crossbreeding and seed selection (“conventional biofortification”); the addition of nutrients during the processing of crops; or through genetic engineering. ANH-USA’s position on the subject would depend largely on which process is used.
In any case, the labeling of the biofortified food is important. Labeling would need to indicate three things: that it was biofortified; how it was biofortified (natural vs. GE); and what it was fortified with.
The conventional biofortification of crops is positive: it provides a natural, safe way to deliver necessary vitamins and minerals to vulnerable populations without processing. For example, the HarvestPlus program (developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, an observer at Codex meetings), also produces crops biofortified with iron and zinc. In fact, we could argue that biofortification through conventional breeding or processing is a relatively inexpensive and time-tested methodology—human beings have literally been doing it for millennia with great success. And it is a safe alternative to GE. By contrast, it would be irresponsible to accept GE biofortification without evaluating its long-term safety to humans and to the environment.
Codex (short for Codex Alimentarius, the Latin for “food code”) is a commission established in 1963 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization with a stated mission of protecting the health of the consumers and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. As we explained last year, this is done by developing harmonized international food standards, guidelines, and codes of practice, and wherever there is a proposed “harmonization,” we must be vigilant.
Codex guidelines and standards are also used as benchmarks in World Trade Organization disputes—and as a WTO member, the US must toe the line. On top of that, Codex standards may influence domestic law. Right now, the European Union’s absurdly low allowable dosages for vitamins, minerals, and other supplements influences Codex, which may in turn influence or affect our own laws—and that would be a disaster.
We will, of course, keep you posted on what is happening as all this develops.