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What are we eating?

Calls sound for labels on genetically engineered food

Tara Cook-Littman, Beth Beisel and John Hartwell protest on Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield, calling for labels indicating foods that have been genetically modified.

Tara Cook-Littman, Beth Beisel and John Hartwell protest on Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield, calling for labels indicating foods that have been genetically modified.

Tara Cook-Littman of Fairfield wants to be able to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the food she feeds her family and is doing something about it.

She is part of a growing movement in the area — and around the world — fighting to give people the freedom to know what is in the food they eat through labeling food that contains genetically engineered ingredients.

Cook-Littman said the government has given large biotech companies, like Monsanto, free rein over the nation’s food supply.

“The government is allowing corporate interest to trump our right to know,” Cook-Littman said of obstacles to GMO labeling. “It has to stop.”

Two labeling bills

The Connecticut General Assembly has until the end of its legislative session at the beginning of June to vote on two bills that would allow residents more knowledge of what is in their food. The two bills would require labeling of food that contains ingredients that are genetically engineered.

HB 6527 would require labeling of baby food and formula. And HB 6519 is a general labeling bill.

Cook-Littman, director of the grassroots group GMO Free CT, has been a strong supporter of the bills.

“The fight to label GMOs is about the American citizenry rising up and taking back our government and taking back our food supply,” she said. “It’s very symbolic of what’s happening with our government [in general].”

As a former New York City prosecutor and currently certified health counselor, Cook-Littman brought the combination of her advocacy skills and passion for health and wellness together for this issue.

Broken promises

The promise of GMOs was that they would create higher yields for crops and help feed the world.

The word was that there would be a reduced need for pesticides with genetically engineered crops since the seeds would be designed to resist disease, insects and weeds.

That’s not what happened, according to Cook-Littman.

“They say [pesticide use] lessens,” she said. “But, in fact, use has grown.”

She points to the concept that nature finds a way and is combating pesticide and herbicide use — including crops engineered to produce their own pesticides and herbicides — with heartier, harder-to-kill weeds, insects and diseases.

“Weeds become tolerant,” Cook-Littman said. “There’s a whole new strain of weeds that are resistant [to pesticides].”

And with that comes the use of stronger chemicals and multiple applications, she said.

“All these herbicides and pesticides are polluting our water and land,” Cook-Littman said. “It’s really sad and freaking scary.”

And it has been a long time coming.

“This is what GMOs have been doing the last 20 years,” she said.

Genetically engineering crops is different from natural methods of creating hybrid crops or cross-breeding. In genetic engineering, genetic information is taken from one species to another species — possibly even fish or animal to a plant — in what many claim is an unnatural process.

“Just because we have the science to do something doesn’t mean we should,” Cook-Littman said. “Who are we to say we should be genetic-engineering nature. Once you mess with genes you can’t go back, it’s done.”

ShopRite says no

On May 9, Cook-Littman was part of a group that staged a protest outside ShopRite supermarket at 1975 Black Rock Tpk.

At issue was a letter written by the manager of the store dated April 29. It was sent to local legislators urging them to vote no to labeling foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The letter says there are “many reasons” to not support the bills, citing the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) approval of food with GMOs as safe and an increase in costs on the part of stores to adhere to a law of this type.

In a statement, ShopRite said, “At ShopRite we believe that consumers should have the information they need to make informed buying decisions. Currently, the only sure way to avoid GMOs is to purchase foods that are certified organic.”

The statement said that a federal law on labeling is the best way, since labeling state by state can be onerous for companies.

Cook-Littman said the store is not helping consumers in the area who want to know what is in their food.

“They’re not doing anything,” she said.

Whole Foods has pledged that all the items in its stores in the United States and Canada will be labeled for GMOs, by vendors, by 2018.

Are GMOs safe?

The FDA granted food with genetically engineered ingredients the status of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), a classification given to a new substance or chemical that is added to food that is scientifically documented as safe.

The result is that extensive testing was not required for GMOs.

“GMOs never should have been granted GRAS status,” Cook-Littman said. “The FDA broke their own rules and regulations.”

She said that GRAS status is typically granted when either something has been around for so long that there is no disputing its safety or the scientific community agrees it is safe — which was not the case for GMOs.

Cook-Littman also said that because of licensing issues, independent research on GMOs is scant.

“It’s hard to do independent testing because the seeds are patented,” she said. “And any scientists trying to do studies are crucified by the industry.”

The bottom line?

“GMOs were never proven safe,” Cook-Littman said. “Unfortunately, the burden seems to have shifted onto the consumer to prove they’re dangerous.”

Your representatives

On May 6, the Fairfield RTM voted 40-5 in favor of a nonbinding resolution supporting the labeling bills in the Connecticut General Assembly.

Rep. Jay Wolk (D-6th District) co-sponsored the resolution with Marc Patten (D-7th), Michael Herley (R-1st) and Bill Domeika (D-9th).

Wolk said that people have a right to know.

“I’m for it,” Wolk said of labeling.

And he doesn’t believe that it should raise costs.

“Companies re-label every few years [anyway],” he said. “This is not going to happen tomorrow; it will take a few years.”

As far as Wolk knows, Fairfield is the only town in Connecticut to pass this type of resolution. And he hopes it will set an example around the state and the country.

“If [labeling] happens [in Connecticut], it will mean a lot to a lot of people fighting for GMO labeling in other states,” he said.

And now that GMO labeling has scored a local victory with the RTM’s endorsement, Wolk is grateful — and proud — of his co-sponsors, RTM moderator Jeff Steele (R-2nd) for getting the vote on the agenda, and support from state Reps. Kim Fawcett (D-133rd), Brenda Kupchick (R-132nd) and Tony Hwang (R-134th), as well as state Sen. John McKinney (R-28th).

“Their presence meant the world to me,” Wolk said.

McKinney is known for being pro-environment and has been a longtime supporter of GMO labeling.

“It really is about a consumer’s right to know,” McKinney said. “I don’t think it has negative connotations.”

He disputes manufacturers’ claims about hardships with changing packaging and having to accommodate GMO labeling needs on a state-by-state basis.

“Water and soda companies label [differently] for states that have bottle bills,” he said.

So why does he think companies are resisting labeling legislation?

“The obvious answer is they don’t want labeling,” McKinney said.

He said some companies that manufacture food products for the United States already make the same products for other countries that require labeling or ban GMOs.

But the labeling bills, McKinney pointed out, are not banning anything.

“We’re asking that people be informed, educated,” he said.

McKinney predicted the state Senate has the votes to pass the bills if they get past the House vote, which he said is uncertain given that the speaker of the House, Brendan Sharkey of Hamden (D-88th), and Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have both spoken unfavorably about the bill.

Fawcett has been very supportive of GMO labeling.

“I’m a huge advocate for labeling,” she said.

Fawcett, vice chairman of the General Assembly’s Children’s Committee, introduced a bill that mandates labeling baby food and formula (HB 6527), and has been championing it through the Children’s, Public Health and Environment committees.

She said the “GMO baby bill” is intended as a potential compromise if the general GMO labeling bill cannot get passed, “as a first step.”

“Children’s bodies and babies in particular are much more likely to be compromised by the effects of GM food,” she said.

The public hearing for the GMO baby bill was held this past February at Fairfield University.

Fawcett said she is proud of the Fairfield RTM for bringing Republicans and Democrats together. Fawcett said this confluence across party lines says a lot.

“[Labeling] is not a party issue,” she said. “It’s about giving families the right to know what’s in their food.”

The next step for the labeling bills is the floor vote.

“We’re eagerly anticipating that opportunity,” Fawcett said.

More to do

But while Cook-Littman said the battle for GMO labeling is making headway, she feels there is still more work to do to keep legislators on their toes.

She recommends people call their state senators and state representatives and ask them to support the GMO labeling bills.

People can also join Cook-Littman and others on Tuesday, May 21, for a rally in Hartford at the state Capitol.

“If the biotech and food industry is so convinced that GMOs are safe, let’s agree to label them and then allow the public to make their own decision,” she said.

Cook-Littman said she is just one of an emerging coalition of “educated, savvy” citizens who care about what they feed their families and the legacy they will leave behind.

“We are inspired to fight for our right to know because of our love for our children, our desire to live in harmony with nature, and our concern for future generations we will never meet,” she said.

Information on the rally and GMO labeling is available at gmofreect.org.

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