Finally, the U.S. Senate voted March 22 to pass an amendment by Mark Begich (D-AK) to require labeling of genetically engineered fish. The senator noted that more than 60 countries currently require labeling of GE foods, including Russia, China and the EU. Also, more than 2,000 grocery stores across the U.S., including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, have committed not to sell genetically engineered seafood.

The amendment was attached to the Senate Budget Resolution, which is nonbinding, but passage of Begich’s amendment may increase pressure on the FDA to require labels on all genetically engineered foods.

More than 90 percent of Americans support labeling of GE foods and more than one million have petitioned the FDA to require such labels. So why has it taken so long? Once again, pushback by the incredibly powerful food industry lobby is responsible for this inaction and blatant disregard for the will of the people.

It used the same pressure, threats of price increases, that pumped money into California’s November election, narrowly defeating a voter initiative (Proposition 37) that would have required labels on all processed foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

So how have industry groups gained so much power that they are able to force their will on Congress? Threats and money. Legislators are threatened with being “primaried,” meaning the lobbyists will heavily fund the primary campaigns of candidates they can control over those who would put their constituents first. The NRA may have written the book on this one.

One of the tactics used among budget hawks is to cut funding for the regulatory agencies involved (think inspectors’ salaries). Or to insert loopholes for industry allowing the continuation of dubious practices that threaten public health.

Hence the weakness we see in agencies such as the EPA, FDA and USDA, issuing advisories with absolutely no back-up, no fines, no penalties for industry; just a plea for voluntary compliance.

These were noticeable in the cases of bisphenol A (BPA) and prophylactic use of antibiotics in food animals. BPA, a lining used in food cans, is an endocrine disrupter that studies show reduces immune function and memory in adults and causes cancer and irreversible organ damage in children. Yet all efforts to ban its use have been thwarted. In fact, it is the only can lining approved by the FDA for packaging tomatoes and other highly acidic foods. Before BPA became the industry standard, cans were lined with enamel made from vegetable resin. These still exist but are 14 percent more expensive, according to manufacturer Ball Corp.

A move to require caffeine amounts on labels of energy bars and drinks followed the death of a 14-year-old girl whose death was attributed to cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity. The parents are suing Monster Beverage but, so far, beverage makers aren’t required to list caffeine content on such products.

Consumer Reports magazine reported lab analyses of 27 energy drinks and shots in its December issue. Eleven of those didn’t list caffeine content on the label. Five of the 16 that listed caffeine contained more than 20 percent above what was shown on the label.

The FDA reported deaths possibly linked to Monster and 5-Hour Energy drinks, but they didn’t prove causation. Perhaps the lawsuit will enlighten us further.

Aside from risks to children, caffeine can adversely affect adults who are sensitive to the boost that others seem to crave. Several members of my family have little tolerance for the jolt of coffee, even what one assumes to be the negligible amount in coffee-flavored ice cream. These effects are more than just jitters or insomnia and include temporary “racing” of the heart. The addition of caffeine amounts on labels would be a great help.

We’re still waiting.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been pilloried in the press for turning the Big Apple into a Nanny State. A judge overruled his attempt to restrict the size of sugary drinks on the premise that the city’s Health Department didn’t have the proper authority. Bloomberg will appeal, noting super-sized drinks contribute to obesity, a major health issue nationwide.

The mayor may just be ahead of the curve on obesity as he was on public smoking. He still says people can smoke if they choose, just not where others are exposed to their exhalations.

So, what will it take to strengthen the agencies that regulate our food production and labeling? Perhaps we need legislators with the strength and conviction of Bloomberg and the guts to stand up to industry lobbyists.

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