Top chefs meet with lawmakers to urge GMO labeling

WASHINGTON — The discussion surrounding labeling foods that contain genetically
modified organisms is reaching a boiling point, and chefs are adding to the heat.

On Tuesday, Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, Sam Talbot and a handful of other
celebrity chefs took to Capitol Hill to deliver a petition to members of Congress,
urging them to support legislation requiring the labeling of genetically modified

“Americans need to know, on a very basic level, what they’re eating,” said Sen. Jon
Tester, D-Mont., an organic farmer who joined the chefs in their meetings with
lawmakers. “It’s critically important; it shouldn’t be guesswork. It’s truly a question
of basic transparency.”

Food safety advocates and small farmers have long pushed for more regulation
surrounding GMO use and labeling, and now they have chefs in their corner. Colicchio,
founder of Craft and Colicchio & Sons restaurants and a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef,”
says the chefs’ involvement in the issue cuts to the core of the culinary industry.

The selection of ingredients is a critical component to cooking. A chef
who purchases an organic cut of meat from a small farmer, with whom the chef has a
relationship, trusts he’s getting a high-quality product. But chefs are in the dark
when they use products containing corn, soybeans and canola, many of which are made using
genetically modified organisms.

But beyond having control over the ingredients that go into their dishes, chefs feel a
certain obligation to their diners.

“When you come into a restaurant, it’s a chef’s responsibility to make sure that we
know what we are putting on your plate, [and] you’re not going to get sick from [it],” said
Talbot, a former “Top Chef” contestant and author. “We’re in direct contact with
consumers on a daily basis, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, what’s in our food? Is this
local? Is it organic?'”

After passing a law requiring food manufacturers to label products containing GMOs in
May, Vermont is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by trade organizations to block
the bill, saying mandatory labeling violates the Constitution.

Oregon, Colorado, Washington state and California have all failed to pass a GMO
labeling measure. In April, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-
Ore., introduced a bill to have the Food and Drug Administration
mandate the labeling
of foods containing GMOs.

“Often times when these initiatives get on the ballot, there are millions and
millions spent” to defeat them, Tester said. The Associated Press reports that labeling opponents
Oregon raised $20 million to defeat the initiative.

“And it’s done for the sole purpose
of folks not wanting to be accountable,” Tester said.

However, despite recent defeats, supporters of GMO labeling are not backing down.

“The food movement has been around for 15, 20 years, but it’s only recently that chefs
and consumers … are starting to look at policies that affect what goes on a plate,”
Colicchio said.

“We’re not asking for a skull and crossbones; we’re not asking for a label in front
that says ‘danger’ … and we’re not asking to take GMOs off the market. We’re asking for
clear and precise labeling … It confuses consumers, the lack of transparency.”

The Food and Drug Administration requires food manufacturers to label more
than 3,000 ingredients and additives contained in food products. Consumers can also
choose other products based on regulated labels, such as USDA Certified Organic.
However, there are no requirements for foods containing GMOs.

“If our foods have so much more added sugar or so much more added salt — in that same
way, we should have the right to know if our foods have GMOs in them,” said Andrés, who
owns several restaurants in the D.C. area.

Critics of GMOs are skeptical of their potential health effects, and argue that not
enough is known about them or their long-term effects. Supporters say there’s little
scientific evidence that genetically engineered foods are unsafe, and that requiring labels
might spook consumers, The Associated Press reports.

“Just from a farmer perspective, the whole [genetically engineered] thing, we better
know what we’re doing,” Tester said. “Because once it’s put into the ecosystem, there’s
no pulling back.”

There is a distinguishable difference, however, between proponents of GMO labeling and
critics of GMOs. According to Andrés, 93 percent of Americans said in a recent poll
that they support the right to know what’s in their food. Currently, more than 60
countries label foods containing GMOs.

“I believe we are at this moment in America where we vote with our beliefs, we vote
with our hearts, but more and more, we’re going to be voting with our plate. And in the
years to come, we’re going to see that the food we’re going to be feeding our children
is going to be part of the political conversation,” Andrés said.

“When I became an American, the first thing they told me was, ‘You, as a new American
citizen, are expected to speak up.’ Part of building the democracy forward — you cannot
shut up; you have to take action. This is what we’re doing.”

Staff and advocates from other food safety and agricultural organizations joined the
chefs on the Hill, and Colicchio and Talbot said Americans can expect to see the
organization of chefs in support of GMO labeling continue to grow.

“We’re like Ewoks. We don’t die; we multiply,” Talbot said.

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