Tom Newmark, Drake Sadler, and Michael Besancon
American Botanical Council
Did you hear the recent story about the scientists who wanted to put the phosphorescent genes from jellyfish into kittens? Sounds crazy, but some cat owners whose felines stray at night would like to use this technology to find them in the dark.
So imagine this laboratory setting: It is night, with low candlelight and soft mood music, and a jellyfish is alone with a cat. The cat is a little apprehensive, wondering how the jellyfish will make its amorous move. It seems ridiculous, of course, and no matter how long those clever scientists might wait, the jellyfish is never going to mate with the cat. It would be, well, unnatural.
So these scientists did the unnatural thing. They extracted the jellyfish’s phosphorescence DNA, and inserted them into the cat genome, hoping the glow-in-the-dark trait would transfer. And it did — really! Look on the Internet and you’ll find images of glowing yellow and green kittens, just like a bad science fiction movie.
In certain applications, maybe genetic engineering isn’t always bad science, and we acknowledge that the glow-in-the-dark kittens were part of research to better understand feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). But let’s be clear: combining jellyfish and cat DNA certainly isn’t the result of normal reproduction. It’s definitely not natural and neither is the genetic engineering or modification of foods!
California’s Proposition 37 will require the labeling of foods (processed and raw, natural or not) that contain genetically modified or genetically engineered ingredients. It’s also known as the “Right to Know” initiative, and it’s on the ballot in November 2012 because almost a million California voters have signed petitions asking to vote on this issue.
Most polls show overwhelming state and national support for the labeling of genetically modified foods, yet some provisions of Prop. 37 have concerned other players within the natural products community. The Natural Products Association and the Council for Responsible Nutrition, 2 leading natural product trade associations, say vote “No;” Whole Foods Market and many leading organic brands say vote “Yes;” while some influential organizations are sitting on the fence with no official position. Understandably, some of the “Vote Yes” partisans are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the proposition, principally the specter of private litigation similar to that which resulted from the much-maligned and highly controversial California Proposition 65.
But Prop. 37 and Prop. 65 are fundamentally different. Prop. 65 is all about content. If a product or ingredient contains one scintilla over the limit of any of about 800 natural and synthetic chemicals, the seller of that material has Prop. 65 exposure. Prop. 37 on the other hand, is all about process. If a manufacturer can document through supply-chain affidavits that it has not intentionally introduced genetically engineered materials into the product, the manufacturer has no Prop. 37 legal exposure.
Also, under Prop. 37 the GMO content of an “exempt” product is irrelevant. A processed food may have significant GMO contamination (with no upper limits), but if the contamination is unintentional and if efforts were made to segregate the product from GMOs, there will be no Prop. 37 labeling requirement or exposure. There is pervasive misinformation on this point, and it bears repeating: Prop. 37 is about process, in contrast to Prop. 65’s focus on content!
Responsible herb and dietary supplement companies already operate in a complex process-driven industry complying with domestic and international regulations, cGMP (current good manufacturing practices) requirements, New Dietary Ingredient (NDI) notification requirements, organic certification, and NonGMO Project verification. Certainly these companies can handle the paperwork involved in having suppliers confirm that they’ve not intentionally introduced GMOs into their materials.
For those manufacturers that currently use GMO materials (for up to 10 minor ingredients), however, under Prop. 37 they have 5 years to make the transition. And after this time, if they want to keep using GMO materials, they can do so but will then be required to label their products.
And in fact, the labeling required will be rather benign. It would simply read, “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” No scary language like, “This experimental genetically engineered stuff hasn’t been clinically tested for safety,” no warnings of potential birth defects or infertility, and no alarms about unknown food allergens or glow-in-the-dark bran muffins. It’s just a “may be.”
Even so, some companies with quality products will make mistakes, and supply-chain management will need to increase scrutiny. It’s also fair to say that Prop. 37 will, like many statutes, benefit from intelligent rulemaking and enforcement, and the herbal and dietary supplement community will have opportunities to be heard as the details get fleshed out. These are not sufficient reasons to withhold support for this important initiative.
Health-conscious consumers trust manufacturers to tell the truth about their products. Consumers have the right to know what they’re buying and Prop. 37 is a necessary first start.
About the Authors
Tom Newmark is the former Chairman of New Chapter Inc., owner of an organic herb farm in Costa Rica, and has recently joined the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council.
Drake Sadler is the co-founder and chairman of Traditional Medicinals, Inc., the largest medicinal herb tea manufacturer in the United States.
Michael Besancon is the retired senior global vice-president of purchasing, communications, and distribution of Whole Foods Market.
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