GMO Labeling: What Are We Eating? And Who Doesn’t Want Us To Know?
WASHINGTON — A Pew Research Center survey in January set out to gauge the sentiments held by the public and scientists with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a range of science, engineering and technology issues.
Nowhere did these two sides disagree more strongly than in their opinions on whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified (GM) foods: 57 percent of the public believes they’re not safe to consume, while 88 percent of scientists say they’re generally safe.
“Consumers say they want more information, not less,” said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, a national environmental nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “Despite a hundred million dollars being spent to defeat mandatory labeling, the food movement rallied stronger than ever.”
O’Neil is referring to the millions of dollars food manufacturers and biotech firms spent to defeat mandatory labeling laws for genetically engineered (GE) products in states like Washington and California in recent years.
An estimated 70-80 percent of foods in the U.S. contain GM ingredients. More than 64 countries require GMO or GE labeling because they are not considered to have been proven to be safe, but the U.S. requires no such disclosure.
“GE” refers to plants that have had genes intentionally inserted into them to produce another organism not occurring in nature or to introduce new characteristics or traits. Examples of this include corn, canola and soybeans resistant to the herbicide Roundup, or insect-resistant cotton.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as organisms which have been bred through genetic modification or bred to foster gene alteration.
While the two terms can generally be used interchangeably, the Food and Drug Administration considers GE to be a more precise term.
As states struggle to pass labeling legislation on their own, federal legislation in support of mandatory labeling was reintroduced by California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio last month. The bill, known as the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, was first introduced in April 2013.
“The Boxer-DeFazio bill would create federal law,” said O’Neil. “It’s the easiest solution.”
At the end of the day, everyone should be able to look at a label and know what they’re feeding their families, he says.
“Things are coming to a head this year,” O’Neil said. “This is chiefly about preventing consumer deception. Poll after poll shows consumers are twice as likely to buy natural, thinking it’s non-GMO.”
The customer is always right
The USDA National Organic Program standards prohibit GMO products from receiving an “organic” label, and a number of retailers have already committed to GMO labeling. The New York Times reported in January 2013 that Wal-Mart was among a group of major food companies, including PepsiCo and ConAgra, which met to discuss lobbying for a national labeling program.
Wal-Mart is the country’s largest grocery store operator, which means that its support for mandatory labeling could have a massive impact. Yet smaller, but still significant, chains have already made some headway in this regard.
Whole Foods Market was the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency, aiming to label all GMO-containing products in their U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018. The company’s seven stores in the United Kingdom already label all foods that intentionally contain or are produced using GMO ingredients, in line with U.K. labeling requirements.
“We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumer’s right to know,” Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, says in a statement on the company’s website. “The prevalence of GMOs in the U.S. paired with nonexistent mandatory labeling makes it very difficult for retailers to source non-GMO options and for consumers to choose non-GMO products. Accordingly, we are stepping up our support of certified organic agriculture, where GMOs are not allowed, and we are working together with our supplier partners to grow our non-GMO supply chain to ensure we can continue to provide these choices in the future.”
The chain is responding to customers who have consistently asked for GMO labeling, Robb stated, “and we are doing so by focusing on where we have control: in our own stores.”
Aldi, a German discount grocery giant, operates stores in the eastern U.S., Texas and Southern California. It also owns the Trader Joe’s specialty chain, which is based in the Greater Los Angeles area. There has been no commercial cultivation of GMO plants in Germany since 2012, and GMO-free labeling has been an option for German food manufacturers and retailers since 2008, according to GMO-Free Europe.
Trader Joe’s is under the umbrella of a company operating under some of the strictest GMO regulations in the world. On its website it claims, “Trader Joe’s Products are sourced from Non-GMO ingredients.”
Yet it doesn’t label products as such “because there are no clear guidelines from the US governmental agencies covering food and beverage labeling. Instead of waiting for such guidelines to be put into effect, and based upon customer feedback, we took a more holistic approach and made the no GMO ingredients position part of what the Trader Joe’s label.”
The chain also says it is “unable to confirm that animal products (meat, dairy and some farmed fish) sold under the Trader Joe’s label are raised on only non-GMO feed, due to the prevalence of GMOs in the commodity grain market, and the limited availability of verified non-GMO feed.” Indeed, Trader Joe’s private label products are produced by outside vendors, and the company has been criticized for refusing to disclose its vendors and their sources.
Headquartered in Vermont and a major force in the campaign for mandatory GMO labeling, Ben & Jerry’s says on its website, “A strong majority of Americans want to see mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms in their food,” citing a December Associated Press-GfK poll.
Ben & Jerry’s committed to transitioning all ingredients to be sourced from non-GMO products in 2013, but the environmentally- and socially-conscious ice cream purveyor has not yet set a date for achieving this goal.
“The more information we share about our sourcing decisions, the more our transparency helps create positive change in the lives of our suppliers,” Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s social mission activism manager, is quoted as saying on the company’s website. “For example, a recent study has shown non-GMO crops can produce equal or improved yields, profits and weed control, which helps the farmers who supply our ingredients.”
According to the Associated Press poll, 66 percent of people polled said they were in favor of GMO labeling, while 7 percent oppose it.
“The Dark Act”
More than 30 states introduced bills or ballot initiatives requiring labeling from 2013 and 2014, O’Neil, of the Center for Food Safety, said. In May, Vermont became the first state to sign a bill into law that requires GMO labeling on food packaging.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association and other trade groups are suing Vermont over that law, which is set to go into effect in July 2016. As of January, the judge presiding over the case had not said when she planned to issue a ruling.
“I’ve heard they’ll revise it and may strip it down to its basics,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, a grassroots nonprofit, in Minnesota. “Clearly we’re going to see attempts to take the choice away from states.”
Still, the passage of the Vermont law appears to have galvanized other states to move on the issue. According to O’Neil, 16 states have introduced GMO labeling bills so far this year.
“If we can pass federal legislation, we’d avoid having a patchwork quilt of state standards,” O’Neil said. “There are so many myths. Labeling is not a barrier to trade. Sixty-four countries have done this. It is not going to cause prices to go up. And it is not a huge burden for farmers.”
Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo introduced H.R. 4432 last April. Advocates for the public’s right to know about foods containing GMOs call Pompeo’s bill “the Dark Act” — “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act” — because it would legalize the use of the word “natural” on products containing GMOs. It would also deny every state the choice to pass GMO labeling laws.
Instead of promoting clear labeling on packaging, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack suggested in February that consumers could use smartphones to read barcodes to identify foods containing GMOs.
According to the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of American adults owned a smartphone as of January 2014. Thus, Vilsack’s barcode plan wouldn’t apply to slightly more than half of the country’s adult population.
“Fundamentally it shouldn’t matter where you live, where you shop or what technology you have,” said O’Neil. “Everybody should have access to knowing what’s in the food they eat.”
A lack of consensus
“Most people think GMO foods are for the future, for a time we have no food because of climate change, but this has rapidly found its way into our stores,” Baden-Mayer told MintPress. “Ninety-seven percent of GMO foods use pesticides. When people find out, they say, Yes, this should be labeled.”
GMO foods were introduced on the shelves of grocery stores in the 1990s. The FDA states that nutritional assessments of foods from GE plants evaluated by the administration “have shown that such foods are generally as nutritious as foods from comparable traditionally bred plants.” These assessments, it says, have also found that foods from GE plants are not more likely to be toxic or cause allergic reactions that traditionally bred plants.
The FDA also says it supports voluntary labeling for foods that have or have not been produced using GMOs or GE products, “provided that such labeling is truthful and not misleading.” In 2001, it released a draft guidance for voluntary labeling, which was last updated in December.
The Organic Consumers Association has been collecting testimonies on whether there’s a difference in health in those who stop eating GM foods and GMO-containing foods and change to an organic diet, as defined and regulated by the USDA, which oversees the National Organic Program. Baden-Mayer says health problems were associated with GMO food consumption among 375 people she interviewed.
“As one of the first comparisons to say this was making us sick, it’s been amazing to see people learning about its effects,” she said.
Baden-Mayer says animal studies have shown that GMO foods destroy the balance of bacteria in the body’s digestive system.
“Science will continue to link these foods to illness,” she said. “We’re going to have unknown genetic changes that won’t be visible. The science used is basic to isolate out a trait. Nobody traces it to see what else happens.”
Changes could likely include toxins and nutritional deficits, she says.
“We’re consuming levels of GMO we’ve never seen before,” she said. “We’re seeing problems such as difficulty to conceive and digestive problems. I’ve had testimony from people talking about the difficulty to buy more expensive organic foods, and saying it was worth it because they have their health back. Getting sick is a lot more expensive.”
There are virtually no studies on the effects of consuming GMOs, she says, because it would be prohibitively expensive to research and test for safety.
Indeed, a Jan. 24 statement in Environmental Sciences Europe, signed by more than 300 scientists and physicians, states that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. It further states that any such claim about a consensus is “an artificial construct that has been falsely perpetuated.”
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