On April 2, food activists in California won their first victory in their campaign to require mandatory labeling for food with GMOs: genetically modified organisms. The Committee for the Right to Know announced that they had collected the 800,000 signatures necessary to establish a 2012 ballot initiative so that voters can have their say on the issue next fall.
With nearly 80% of conventional corn and soy in America containing genetic material from other species designed to help them resist pesticides, it’s difficult to avoid these so-called “Frankenfoods,” unless they are clearly labeled. Across the European Union, GM food must be labeled, but not so in the US.
Despite numerous studies documenting the potential harmful effects of GMOs, the FDA has agreed with the chemical companies that produce them, stating that there is “no ‘material difference’ between GM and non-GM foods, so they don’t need labels. The Orthodox Union, the leading American authorities on kashrut, ruled similarly saying: genetic engineering “does not affect kosher status,” because genetic material is “microscopic.”
But in a poll conducted by the Mellman Group last month, 91% of Americans said they want the FDA to label genetically engineered foods. And a recent consumer-led petition drive is forcing the agency to review its position. So do these campaigns mean anything for kashrut and kosher food?
While recent reports of exploitive labor practices and animal mistreatment in kosher food facilities have jumpstarted debates about the ethical dimensions of kashrut and lead to public education and new, independent kosher facilities, there isn’t much talk about GMOs in the Jewish community. Has the kosher establishment’s ruling curtailed debate and activism? Two Orthodox organizations that work on food justice and animal welfare issues, Shamayim V’aretz and Uri L’Tzedek, declined to comment about GMOs in the American food system, stating that they were not working on this issue.
Yet, as Zelig Golden, former attorney at the Center for Food Safety, said: “Just because the Orthodox Union declared them [GMOs] kosher, doesn’t mean that they are kosher.” Golden, who now runs the Bay Area nature education nonprofit Wilderness Torah, supports the California ballot initiative, and would like to see more Jewish community involvement on the issue. Golden has previously publicly debated Orthodox rabbis about the halakhic issues at stake — whether GM foods are mixed species, or if they are nullified because the foreign genetic material is so small — but he doesn’t think that change will come from halakhic rulings. “The important angle,” he said, “is that people think kosher food is safer. But it’s not.”
Sue Fishkoff’s 2010 book, “Kosher Nation,” reported exactly this: that nearly half of Americans believe that food with a kosher label is safer, and 62% believe it is healthier. “But kosher certifiers would be the first to tell you that their goal is to help produce food that is appropriate for Jews to eat, not to make food safer or healthier,” Fishkoff said.
So the narrow technical vision of kashrut results in an implicit endorsement of genetically modified food, which misleads not only the Jewish community, but the public at large.
If the California ballot initiative or the FDA review requires GMO labeling in the future, this will both raise consumer awareness about the effects of GM foods and could create an incentive for food producers — including kosher ones — to remove GMOs from their products, similar to how recent attacks on high fructose corn syrup and “pink slime” led to these products’ removal from many processed foods.
But in the meantime, if you want to avoid GMOs in your food and maintain conventional kosher standards, there are many ways to do it. Foods labeled both kosher and USDA organic are, by current practices, completely GMO-free.