Safe Food Labeling Committee Nears Completion of Identifying Foods with GMOs and rBGH
By Julia Herd, for the Safe Food Labeling Committee
Do you worry about the safety of the food that you buy? Concerned that your food may contain genetically modified ingredients? Wonder if the milk you buy comes from cows fed artificial growth hormones (rBGH) that force them to produce more milk than is natural? Do you think consumers have a right to know what’s in their food and how it’s produced? So does the Coop’s Safe Food Labeling Committee.
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a living organism created in a laboratory from genes of one species that are forcibly inserted into the DNA of an unrelated species (5—please refer to end of article for references for this and all other footnotes). Genetic engineering is used by agribusiness in certain food crops. (3; 6). It creates plants that (a) can survive applications of certain herbicides that would otherwise kill them, or (b) contain a poison that kills particular pests (3; 6). For example, the gene of a soil bacterium could be inserted into potato DNA so that the potato cells will develop their own pesticide. The idea may be to increase the food supply (5), but consumers and the environment have not benefited (5; 6).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved introduction of GM crops in 1996 (1), and the use of rBGH in 1993. (1; 5). However, there has been minimal safety testing of the resulting food supply. (2; 5; 6). There are now documented health risks linking GMOs to immune system dysfunction, certain allergies, potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, and stunted organs. (6). As for rBGH, in addition to the health impact on cows (5), there are concerns that ingestion by humans plays a role in certain cancers, including breast and colon cancers. (2; 5; 6). In effect, U.S. consumers are the guinea pigs and potentially the biggest losers if there are long-term negative results from ingesting GM foods. But who will know why they became ill, since GM technology, although patented (6), is not identified in our foods?
It simply does not follow that a GM potato is as safe as a non-GM potato just because the original soil bacterium inserted into the GM potato was safe in its natural state (6). GM plants contain proteins that have never before been in the food supply (6). Agribusiness also ignores what happens to pollinating insects and birds that feed on the flowers of GM plants, and make no real effort to keep non-GM crops free from cross-pollination. (1; 3; 4; 5). There is also the threat to the diversity of our mainstay food crops if only one seed type is manufactured and used, because a virus or disease could wipe out the entire crop, as happened in Ireland with potato blight from 1845 to 1852 (5).
GM ingredients now appear in a majority of processed foods sold in the United States. Between 15 and 30 percent of the milk supply contains rBGH (5). Nearly 91 percent of the U.S. soy crop is genetically modified, as is 85 percent of the corn and canola crop (1; 3; 6). More than half of Hawaiian papayas are GM, as are small amounts of zucchini and yellow squash (6). Sugar beets are the newest crop to undergo genetic engineering (3). It is projected that about 90 percent of the nation’s sugar will be genetically engineered in 2009 (3; 6). Next on Monsanto’s list is GM wheat (3).
Up to now, if you’ve wanted to avoid eating GM foods and dairy products, or wanted to support sustainable agriculture, the only thing to do was buy foods labeled 100 percent organic (2). There are no federal or state laws requiring food labels to state when a product includes GM ingredients or rBGH (5). Why? Because biotech companies and their lobbyists, focused solely on profits, have enormous influence on Congress (3; 6).
Thus the task of the Safe Food Labeling Committee is to provide shoppers with sufficient information to enable them to avoid GM foods or rBGH dairy products if they want. “Food is supposed to be nourishing, not illness producing,” explains Greg Todd, chair of the Committee.
The Labeling Committee’s two-year project, not quite completed, took as a foundation that foods labeled “100 percent organic” are GMO-free. Individual ingredients labeled “organic” are also GMO-free. Foods grown in and imported from the European Union are GMO-free because of the stricter laws in those countries. After researching the current uses of GM engineering, the committee developed a list of common ingredients which may well be genetically modified. The suspect ingredients are butter, canola, caseinate, cheese, corn, cream, dextrins, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, malto-dexrin, milk, modified food starch, papaya, soy, squash, textured soy protein (TSP) and whey.
Throughout much of 2007 and 2008, shoppers saw committee members pull samples of every food product from the Coop’s shelves or cases, read labels and note suspect ingredients on cards. Over 8,000 labels have been read, and 559 products identified on the Coop’s shelves as containing non-organic, potentially genetically modified ingredients.
The food producers of those 559 products were then contacted by the Labeling Committee, mostly by letter. The letters described the Coop’s project and requested verification of whether genetically modified source material was, was not, or possibly was, part of their products. Phone calls were also made. Responses were tallied from national brands such as Barbara’s Bakery, Hain Celestial Group, Kraft Foods and Unilever, and small local bakeries and family-owned companies.
The Safe Food Labeling Committee of the Coop thinks consumers have a right to know what’s in their food and how it’s produced. The committee undertook a two-year study of the foods sold in the Coop, the results of which are now being released to Coop membership. As described in Part I, committee members read more than 8,000 labels of products on the Coop’s shelves and identified 559 products as containing non-organic, potentially genetically modified ingredients. The food producers were then asked if their products were GMO-free.
The results of the work of the Safe Food Labeling Committee so far have found only 93 products that are verified as being GMO-free. Producers of nine products admit the presence of GMOs among the ingredients, while the producers of 64 products identified them as “possibly” containing GMOs, because they could not state with certainty that their products had not been contaminated with genetically modified source material. The remaining 393 products are currently categorized as “possibly containing GMOs” by default, because their producers declined to respond to three separate requests for information.
The production of GM foods is not confined to large food corporations. It exists among some of the “health conscious” producers as well. Unfortunately there are also hundreds of products that claim on their packaging not to contain GM ingredients but provide little assurance that the products have actually been tested.1 There is growing agreement that testing and labeling are needed to protect the food industry, especially the organic food industry, from the growing spread of biotech ingredients.1 “It’s indicative of how pervasive these dangerous substances are becoming,” said food industry chemist Gregg Bromberg, a committee member
The Safe Food Labeling Committee is now brainstorming ways to inform shoppers about the GMO status of foods on the shelves. Labeling of each product on the shelves would be ideal. However, there are significant technological and personnel hurdles here in the Coop that make shelf labeling a project unlikely to be realized soon, according to the general coordinators. One issue is that programming our computers to add GMO information to the shelf labels is complex and must await completion of several other time-consuming projects. To label shelves by hand would require many hours of labor on a weekly basis, which is not considered feasible. One idea suggested involves producing a brochure that shows shoppers how to read product labels to identify possible GMOs.
In addition, the Coop recently joined the Non-GMO Project, a new industry group aiming to help consumers make informed food choices. The Non-GMO Project does not guarantee that foods are entirely free of genetically modified ingredients but rather that manufacturers have followed procedures, including testing, to ensure that crucial ingredients contain no more than 0.9% of biotech material — the same threshold used in the stricter European Union.1 Food products meeting the standards of the Project will carry the Non- GMO Project seal—a butterfly perched on two blades of grass in the form of a check mark. The Non- GMO Project works with companies to test ingredients and improve manufacturing processes and will also s p o t – t e s t products in stores.1 The new labeling campaign hopes to clear up the existing confusion.1
In addition, some welcome news on the legal front emerged recently. A federal judge in California ruled in September that the U.S. government failed to adequately assess the environmental impact of planting genetically engineered sugar beets before it approved the crop for cultivation. 2 The court ruled that the government should have studied the consequences from the likely spread of the genetically engineered trait to other sugar beets or to other crops. It noted that pollen from the genetically engineered crops might spread to non-GM beets, and that “potential elimination of a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food” constituted a significant effect on the environment that necessitated an environmental impact statement. This court ruling could lead to a ban on the planting of the GM beets, which have already been widely adopted by farmers.
Ultimately, we support strong legislation to make labeling of foods mandatory. In the meantime we support grassroots organizations working to bring safety awareness to consumers.■
The Process to Identify Products with GMOs at the Coop
- Labels read: over 8,000
- Suspect products identified: 559
- Mailings made to the producer of each product: 3
- Products claimed by producer to be GMO-free: 93
- Products identified by producer as having GMOs: 9
- Products identified by producer as probably having GMOs: 64
- Products where producer was non-responsive: 393
1. William Neuman, “‘Non-GMO’ Seal Identifies Foods Mostly Biotech-Free,” New York Times, August 29, 2009 (www.nytimes.com/2009/08/29/business/29gmo.html).
2. Andrew Pollack, “Judge Rejects Approval of Biotech Sugar Beets,” New York Times, September 23, 2009 (www.nytimes.com/2009/09/ 23/business/23beet.html).