Thursday, October 11, 2012

Advocates Call On First Lady Michelle Obama To Endorse California's Prop. 37 To Label GM Foods

A petition being delivered to the White House urges Mrs. Obama to ask her husband to keep a 2007 campaign promise...
As an ambitious young Senator battling for what seemed an unlikely shot at the White House in 2007, Barack Obama said that if he was President, he would "let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they're buying."  On Thursday afternoon, Alexis Baden-Meyer, the political director for Organic Consumers Association, will deliver a petition to the White House addressed to First Lady Michelle Obama, calling on her to urge her husband to keep his campaign-trail promise.  The petition has more than 203,000 signatures, Baden-Meyer said.

The petition delivery comes as California is battling over Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, a ballot measure for November that requires GM foods to be labeled as such.  Since President Obama entered office, the Department of Agriculture has issued a series of decisions favoring GM crops, including sugar beets, alfalfa, and sweet corn. 

The Obama Administration, says, Baden-Meyer, has "exponentially increased the public's exposure to genetically modified food."  She hopes that thanks to being the nation's foremost spokesperson for healthy eating with the Let's Move! campaign, Mrs. Obama will both endorse the California measure and leverage her influence with her husband to get GM foods labeled.  Baden-Meyer stars in a video OCA has created for the effort, titled "Michelle Obama: Tell Barack to honor his campaign promise to label GMOs."

"We know that the First Lady gets it," Baden-Meyer continued, pointing to Mrs. Obama's famous Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn as evidence that she supports non-GM food. 

"There is a very large disconnect between what Michelle Obama does as First Lady and what Barack Obama does as President," Baden-Meyer continued, adding that she feels certaint the First Family does not eat GM foods.

"It would be wonderful to have her endorsement for Prop. 37.  She's got a lot of credibility on the issue."

A spokesman for the East Wing declined to comment on the record about the petition delivery or Mrs. Obama's position on Prop. 37. And when she delivers the petition to the White House at 3:00 PM, Baden-Meyer will not be meeting with anyone from Mrs. Obama's East Wing staff or the Let's Move! campaign, she said, but rather with Stephanie Valencia, the Deputy Director of the White House's Office of Public Engagement.

Prop. 37 has received the endorsement of high-profile good food advocates, celebrities, and bestselling author Michael Pollan, who published a piece in The New York Times on Wednesday noting that the passage of Prop. 37 has the potential "to change the politics of food not just in California but nationally too."

Mrs. Obama's endorsement of Prop. 37, said Baden-Meyer, "would have more weight than Michael Pollan's."

OCA held a press conference in Washington, DC, today about delivering the petition to Mrs. Obama, and a copy will also be delivered today to the President's campaign office in San Francisco as activists rally in Oakland.

But with her husband engaged in a tight race for re-election, the chance of Mrs. Obama going on the record about California's ballot initiative is about equivalent to the chance that Big Foot will be invited for tea in the Blue Room.

The First Lady, labeling, and GM vs. organic...
Mrs. Obama has been careful to avoid using the word "organic" when discussing healthy eating as part of Let's Move!, and she has also avoided discussing GM foods. The same is true for Sam Kass, Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives and other members of the Let's Move! team.  And despite the widely held misconception that the First Lady's Kitchen Garden is organic, it is not certified as such.

But Mrs. Obama has spotlighted the importance of detailed labels for food products with the Let's Move! campaign. "Parents and children need accurate, clear, and consistent information on food packages in order to choose healthier foods," notes the Report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, the document that provides the architecture for Let's Move!.

Yet Mrs. Obama's focus on better labeling is for nutrition information rather than for the presence of GM ingredients.  The Task Force Report does not mention GM foods.* 

Although studies offer competing conclusions about whether or not GM foods are harmful to human health, citizens have been demanding to know if their food contains GM ingredients.

"Nine out of ten Americans support labeling," Baden-Meyer said, adding that some studies link GM foods to a range of health issues, including obesity and allergies.

61 countries require GM foods be labeled as such, OCA says. The group is also trying to get a question about the subject included in Town Hall-style Presidential Debate that will take place on October 16th, asking supporters to vote online for the question "Do you think we deserve the same 'right to know' that is enjoyed by people in 61 other countries where genetically engineered food is labeled? Do you support Proposition 37, the ballot initiative in California to label GMOs?"

Members of OCA have had two petitions about labeling GM foods on the White House's 'We the People' petition site, Baden-Meyer said, which both met the threshhold number for signatures  needed for a public response from the Obama Administration.  Neither got a response.

In contrast, a petition on the site calling for the release of the White House beer recipes got less than half the signatures required before the White House issued its homebrew information.  Beer is far less controversial than labeling.

A recent poll by Oklahoma State University found that 76.8 percent of California voters plan to vote "yes" on Prop. 37, but the study also found that support for the initiative went down after poll respondents were shown a "No on Prop. 37" ad.

The issue, said Baden-Meyer, "polls higher than President Obama in California."

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*It's worth noting that since President Obama took office, the federal government has not only failed to require GM foods to be labeled, but it has also failed to come up with a front-of-package nutrition label that has been universally adopted by food companies, something called for in the Task Force Report.  Instead, food manufacturers have offered the public a wide variety of their own front-of-pack labels that often feature useless lingo such as "all natural" and "healthy."   Walmart, the largest grocer in the world, created a label that reads "great for you" as part of its pledge to support the Let's Move! campaign.

Download: The White House Task Force Report On Childhood Obesity [PDF]

*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama