June 30, 2012

AMA: Pre-Market Review, No Labels, for Genetically Engineered Food

The American Medical Association, a professional organization for physicians, again weighed into the debate over genetically engineered (GE) foods at its recent annual meeting. There are two prongs of the current policy debate over GE foods. One is whether genetically engineered foods need to undergo premarket testing and review for approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA currently does not require premarket testing, in an official policy that dates back to 1992The other issue is whether genetically engineered foods should be labeled in order for consumers to know what they are buying. The FDA does not mandate labeling of GE foods, and legislative efforts at the state level have not succeeded (but note the upcoming California ballot initiative to require labels on GE food this fall). The AMA has now weighed in on both of these issues in a resolution on GE foods adopted at the recent annual meeting, following a report by its Council on Science and Public Health. The AMA recommends that pre-market testing of GE foods be required before the foods are sold to the public, but recommends against requiring the labeling of GE foods. This is an interesting hybrid of a position by the AMA, arguably advocating for the creation of a complicated regulatory apparatus at the FDA to review GE foods, while rejecting the more easily implemented labeling approach. This position reaffirms the AMA position against GE labeling that goes back at least to 2000, and reaffirms its more recent advocacy for pre-market testing. The import of this resolution is not clear, however, in the current labeling debates, such as the electoral showdown this fall in California, opponents of labeling can certainly point to the support by the AMA for their position. However, proponents of labeling can point to language in the AMA Council's report, noting "[t]o strengthen the FDA’s oversight, the Council recommended that pre-market safety testing be mandatory so that consumers are confident that the foods they eat are safe." The  implication that safety concerns remain about GE foods is an argument that labeling advocates can use.  Will other professional medical organizations jump into the fray? I think it’s unlikely (despite the health and safety concerns underpinning these debates), because these issues have been debated for two decades with little official wrangling by other organizations.  However, the adoption of an actual labeling regime in a state (e.g., California) could raise the profile of the issue and lead to calls for further official involvement by the medical community.

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