It hasn’t been a good week for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — if you care about public health. If, however, you think corporate interests and politics should trump science, well, then it’s been one red-letter day after another.

First, the FDA announced its refusal to ban the common endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA). Then, on an unrelated note, The New York Times published a lengthy analysis of the repeated interference by the Obama White House in the FDA’s decision-making process. (The White House meddled in calorie-labeling on movie popcorn, warning labels on low-SPF sunscreen, and an ozone-deplete chemical in certain asthma inhalers.) It’s a distressing pattern of political involvement in science that Obama inherited from the Bush administration.

But it gets worse. Or better if you’re Monsanto. The deadline for the FDA to respond to the Just Label It petition for genetically modified food labeling arrived last week. And, as required by law, the agency responded. Sort of. It supplied a letter to the group behind the petition that said, essentially, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety — one of the groups involved with the Just Label It campaign — told the Chicago Tribune the letter stated that the agency had “not made a decision yet and when they did they would let us know.” The FDA also suggested the group keep an eye out for the first signs of frost in hell. (Okay, I made that last part up.)

The Just Label It campaign had reason to be a bit optimistic. Past surveys have indicated around 90 percent of Americans want GMO labels on food, and Just Label It’s own survey found similar results. The group also collected signatures from 1 million Americans — an undeniable sign that the public broadly supports, even demands, labels.

But it looks like the FDA is refusing to see it that way. In a footnote to its mild response, the FDA observed that a mere 394 comments were submitted by Just Label It, rather than the million the organization claimed. That’s no small disagreement. The difference boils down to way the FDA handles submissions. The main Just Label It petition was submitted as a single document, or docket, and the FDA is choosing to count it as one comment (the other 393 comments come from individuals who contacted the agency separately, i.e. not through the Just Label It site).

As explained by the Chicago Tribune, the FDA doesn’t care “if 35,000 people … sign their name to the same form letter” or 1 million people do. Either way, it counts as a single comment in its system. Personally, I don’t recall the FDA (or any other agency for that matter) understating the number of comments or respondents on a submitted petition like this before. Needless to say, the Just Label It (JLI) folks are not pleased. The Tribune article reads:

“This is the problem with the very un-friendly regulations.gov site,” said Sue McGovern, spokesperson for the Just Label It campaign, in a statement. “It will not allow groups like Just Label It to direct individual comments from our site into theirs.

“It would be great if FDA would update their system to allow for more transparency by making a way for us to send in individual comments from our site so they would be visible to all without a [Freedom of Information Act request],” she said.

FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey said the rules are the same for all citizens petitions to the FDA, also called dockets.

“Because that’s the case for all dockets,” she said, “it’s impossible for me to compare the claim of 1 million comments to other dockets — especially without knowing how JLI is defining a ‘comment.'”

Really, FDA? What’s to compare? One million people told you in no uncertain terms that they want GMO labels and your response is, “Not by our count.”

To add to the confusion, and perhaps raise one’s eyebrows a bit further, Just Label It’s spokespeople have contended on the campaign’s blog that its own million response should count, even by the FDA’s standard process:

[T]he Just Label It Coalition submitted a record-breaking 1,149,967 comments to the FDA’s regulations.gov site by midnight on March 27th, the final date comments were accepted.  It took only 180 days for this record-breaking amount of comments to be generated on the GMO labeling petition, (Docket # FDA 2011-P-0723-001/CP), which had been filed in October 2011 …

Another Center for Food Safety spokesperson involved in the process said, “Submitting gathered signatures and uploading them to regulations.gov together has been common practice as long as the public has been able to submit electronic comments.” It sure looks like the FDA is trying to weasel out of admitting the GM labeling effort was the largest such campaign ever.

I asked NYU nutrition professor and author Marion Nestle if she could shed any light on the situation, and here’s what she had to say: “I’m pretty sure I’ve read FDA Federal Register notices in response to comments in which they note that one petition was filed from x organization with x number of signatures. If they want to label [GMOs], they will use it as evidence. If not, they won’t.”

At the moment, there’s no evidence that the White House was involved in fudging the numbers on the Just Label It petition. But last year they did force the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency charged with regulating the genetically modified foods themselves, to approve unrestricted planting of genetically modified alfalfa against the wishes of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. And that kind of interference sends a clear message — so FDA officials don’t need a phone call from the White House to tell them which way the wind blows on GMO foods.

This is just one more example of FDA foot-dragging on public health issues related to the food system. It pairs nicely with the agency’s recent [in]action on antibiotics in livestock. That’s not to say the FDA never acts decisively. Small family farms selling raw milk and making raw cheese? The FDA is all over that! They will crush those raw milk freaks like bugs to protect the dozens of people who might get sick.

But the hundreds of millions of Americans whose health is threatened by the rise of resistant bacteria in industrial meat? Or the million who would at least like to know when there are genetically modified ingredients in their food? Go file a new docket and they’ll get back to you!

I would suggest people look to their elected representative for help, but our leaders seem far more committed to standing up for oppressed corporations. Or perhaps to the courts, but our judges seem happier parroting Tea Party talking points. Sigh. It’s getting all but impossible to find government officials who seem even remotely interested in serving the people. Where do I submit a docket for that?

UPDATE:

On April 5, Just Label It posted the response it received from the FDA regarding the million signatures. The FDA denies “deleting” any signatures (it was rumored briefly they had) and assured Just Label It that all signatures and comments are retained in their docket system. It’s worth noting, of course, that the original Chicago Tribune article where the FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey claimed the petition only received 394 comments, wasn’t about deletion but rather about whether the FDA was willing to acknowledge the breadth of support for the Just Label It petition. To my mind, the fact that the FDA felt the need to make a further comment is a sign that they realize it was a mistake to mischaracterize the situation they way they did.

At any rate, Just Label It concluded with this observation:

The bigger question of course is do these one million commenters matter? We can without hesitation tell you an enthusiastic “YES.” … We can tell you from our experience in recent months, once we reached half a million people the media and officials in DC started to listen and doors were opened. Senior leaders at the White House, USDA, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the FDA, have all been briefed on the campaign to label GE foods and are following the developments and the number of signatures closely.