Truth in Labeling
Lies in the Telling

Special to The Progressive Populist

"What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

-- William Shakespeare

You have got to hand it to the guys and gals at Monsanto Co. They have a special way with words. Their offbeat phrases are at the center of one of the hottest conflicts in biotechnology.

At issue is whether food products from genetically engineered organisms should be labeled as such.
On one side, individuals and groups such as the National Farmers Organization (NFO) want "truth in labeling, packaging and advertising," says NFO economics adviser John Bobbe.

On the other side, corporations such as Monsanto want "honest and truthful labeling," packaging and advertising, says Monsanto spokeswoman Karen Marshall.

Wait a minute, you say to yourself, what is the difference? That's why the people at Monsanto have such a special way with words.

Farmers mean pretty much what you'd expect them to mean by "honest labeling and advertising." They want ingredients listed on foods. They want important processes listed on foods.

If, for example, one hot dog maker uses artificial flavors and another uses natural flavors, the labels should reflect that. If one package of frozen vegetables used only organically grown vegetables, and another used vegetables grown with the aid of chemical pesticides, packagers should be able to draw attention to those facts on their labels as well. If any ingredient or production process distinguishes your product from that of someone else, you should be able to say so in simple, honest language.

When Monsanto says it favors truth in labeling, it means merchants should NOT list what goes into their product, at least when it comes to genetically engineered ingredients. Simple statements are misleading, says Marshall, because they "can imply that another product is not safe."

Monsanto should know about misleading phrases. This is the same company whose response to concern about chemical pollution in the 1970s was the slogan "Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible."

In 1993, Monsanto lawyers fired off letters to dairies across the country threatening to sue them if they labeled their milk as free of genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Monsanto was beginning to market such a product to farmers to increase the milk production of each cow. The only out it gave diaries was to state on their labels that rBGH-free milk was not safer, nor healthier, nor better than milk from cows treated with rBGH.

Most dairies backed down from the threat. Two small diaries did not: the Pure Milk and Ice Cream Co. in Waco, Texas, and Swiss Valley Farms in Davenport, Iowa. They told Monsanto to leave them alone or take them to court, despite knowing that federal regulators endorsed Monsanto's position.

The FDA waded in on Monsanto's side when it approved commercial sales of Prosilac, the trade name of Monsanto's rBGH. At the same time it banned rBGH-free labels unless dairies documented that no cow ever received the drug -- which the FDA assumed was impossible -- and included a disclaimer on the label that rBGH milk is just as safe, healthy and nutritious as any other milk.

Both dairies had the necessary documentation. Swiss Valley Farms was a small cooperative that purchased raw milk only from its members. Pure Milk did not purchase milk at all. It had its own herd and used only milk from that herd in its products.

Lawyers for the two dairies were prepared to challenge the FDA regulations in court. Shortly before the first trial date, Monsanto withdrew the suits.

The FDA's restrictive rules on labeling still stand and, according to FDA press officer Judith Foulke, they will be applied to other products of genetic engineering. Such products now cover a lot more than milk.

Thirty-seven crops have approval or are pending approval from the USDA. They are: corn, cotton, papaya, potato, rapeseed (canola), soybean, tomato, apples, barley, beets, broccoli, carrot, chicory, cranberry, cucumber, eggplant, gladiolus, grape, lettuce, melon, pea, pepper, petunias, raspberry, rice, strawberry, sugarcane, sweetgum, sweet potato, tobacco, watermelon and wheat.

Foulke says the FDA will require labeling of genetically engineered food products only if gene splicing adds a known allergen to an organism or changes the nutritional characteristics of a food.

Maybe not even then, however. Brad Stone, another FDA spokesperson, says the agency relies on companies voluntarily asking the FDA for its opinion to know when they introduce a new product into the market.

What it doesn't know, it can't regulate. Nor is the nutritional rule an hard and fast one. Stone says the FDA will apply the rule on a case-by-case basis.

One issue the agency would determined in each case is whether the nutritional changes are ones of which consumers need to be aware.

President William Clinton is a big booster of biotechnology. In his first presidential bid he singled out biotechnology as a key the economic competitiveness of the U.S. He promised the industry regulatory relief.

Monsanto reciprocates Clinton's attentions. Not only is the St. Louis-based company one of the major corporate sponsors of the president, its chairman appeared with Clinton at various campaign events and capitol press conferences promoting the president's domestic policies.

With at least the tacit support of the president, Monsanto fast is becoming the Microsoft of agricultural biotechnology.

The company and its subsidiaries own 24 of the 37 genetically engineered plant varieties approved by the USDA or pending its approval. It owns the gene splicing techniques most used in plant genetic engineering. And it owns the germ plasm that is the basis of one-third of the corn seed stock used in the U.S.

In financial statements, Monsanto characterizes itself as the dominant player in agricultural biotechnology.

Marshall, a company spokesperson, says that isn't accurate. Monsanto has 77 competitors producing herbicide-resistant soybeans alone, she says, but they license the technology for doing so from Monsanto.

Like Microsoft, Monsanto has been the target of lawsuits by smaller companies claiming Monsanto stole their technology. Also like Microsoft, Monsanto has settled several such suits by buying the complainants.

Biotechnology has been so good to Monsanto that it raised the company's yearly profit rate to 20 percent of shareholders' equity, nearly double what the rate had been when Monsanto was a broad-based chemical company. This year shareholders approved a management proposal to concentrate solely on agricultural biotechnology and spin off the remaining unrelated business units.

One obstacle appears to stand in the way of Monsanto rolling over opponents and competitors in the agriculture: labeling.

Monsanto won a round against labeling in the U.S. with the FDA's administrative decision supporting the bovine growth hormone. Also, a federal court ruled that states such as Vermont could not force businesses to label dairy products enhanced with growth hormones.

On June 16, however, European Union Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler announced the European Commission would consider a plan to label foods containing gene-altered crops.

Marshall says labeling would require segregating genetically engineered crops from other crops, "which is not practical." EU labeling could force grain merchants to segregate crops in the U.S. or lose sales to Europe.

Labeling unexpectedly resurfaced in the U.S. in another form this year. The National Organic Standards Board recommended to the USDA that it adopt definitions of "natural" and "organic" that excluded the products of gene splicing. Monsanto and other biotech companies oppose that recommendation.

Four years ago, Monsanto spokesman Tom McDermott dismissed the organic foods market as insignificant. Since then, organic foods have been the fastest growing sector of the food market. They are on the verge of snaring 5 percent of the food dollar. They are putting in place a segregated processing and distribution system that could become a credible alternative to gene-spliced foods, unless it is forced to accept them.

The FDA supports Monsanto's position. Foulke says that "biotechnology is something that has been going on forever, stemming from crossbreeding." The FDA's position, she says, is that gene-tailored products "are no different from any other farm product."

The USDA appears to share that view. In May it released a rule to waive the approval process for genetically engineered organisms that are similar to ones already approved.

The USDA expects to issue preliminary standards for "natural" and "organic" this summer, after which there will be a public comment period.

Consumer choice, independent farming and billions of dollars in markets are riding on a name. If Shakespeare had followed Monsanto's rules, he may have been stuck writing something like:

A sweet smelling flower,

from whatever source,

if it has a thorny stem has but one name.

And that name is rose.

Peter Downs is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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