THE GMO CONTROVERSY AND THE IVORY TOWER.
By Andrew H. Paterson & Wayne A. Parrott; University of Georgia
(The following editorial is reprinted with permission from the Winter 2000
issue of the University of Georgia's Research Reporter).
by: "Dr. H.R. Pappu"
In the age of the Internet, laser eye surgery and high-yielding crops,
most people would agree with scientists that basic research and resulting
technologies help society. But through events in which technology has
fallen short -- from Three Mile Island to mad cow disease the public has
come face-to-face with science's fallibility. No longer a passive
recipient of technology, the public increasingly demands a role in
deciding how new discoveries will be implemented.
No single development highlights this new public attitude more than the
stormy reception of genetically modified organisms, also known as
genetically engineered products. The potential benefits of GMOs are
enormous: not only increased crop yields, but also reductions in pesticide
use, ground water contamination and mycotoxin levels.
'Unsafe, Untested'? Groups that oppose genetically engineered foods allege
they're unsafe, untested and unregulated ñ notions that gain support from
high-profile publicity campaigns and imbalances in media coverage.
Just as the scientific data began to accumulate on the benefits of GMOs,
companies like Gerber, Heinz, Seagram, McDonald's and Frito Lay began to
avoid GMO ingredients. Now, the saga of StarLink corn in taco shells has
led GMO critics to assume their worst fears have been realized. GMOs are
more highly regulated than any other food. The U.S. Department of
Agriculture regulates field-testing of GMO crops and any hazards they may
pose to agriculture. The Food and Drug Administration determines whether
GMO-derived products are equivalent to those currently on the market (and
thus not subject to any extraordinary precautions) or are new products,
which must undergo further safety testing and be labeled.
New Products Being Developed All genetically modified foods now on the
market fall under the first category, while several products under
development fall under the second. Foods derived using genes from known
allergens or from organisms outside the traditional human diet also are
subject to heightened scrutiny. The Environmental Protection Agency also
must approve plants engineered with pesticidal properties, like StarLink
corn. Erring on the side of caution, the EPA approved StarLink for animal
feed only. Subsequently, it found no clear evidence that StarLink poses a
human hazard, yet found no clear proof that it didn't.
The EPA wants conclusive results before clearing StarLink for human
consumption and forwarding it to the FDA for further approval. The
StarLink episode demonstrated that GMO contamination of non-GMO products
is inevitable. And while the European Community allows 2 percent of GMOs
in nonGMO products, the United States lacks such a standard.
Outcry Surprised Scientists The outcry against GMOs surprised most
scientists, considering the federal regulations imposed on the already
rigorous peer-review process that has always decided the validity of
science. Ironically, many scientists found themselves and their motives
attacked by organizations whose goals coincide with their own: a safer,
more stable and lower-cost food supply and responsible stewardship of the
The disagreements lie not in the goals, but the best ways to meet them.
With high-profile spokesmen like Prince Charles, the anti-GMO movement
created widespread hysteria across Europe. As misinformation spreads, many
scientists feel they should stay out of the controversy and remain
objective purveyors of unbiased information, safe within the Ivory Tower.
GMO Opponents Not Shy GMO opponents haven't been so shy. From protests to
street theater, from newspaper ads to shareholder meetings, anti-GMO
groups have pressed their message, using ecoterrorism and sensationalist
terms such as "frankenfoods." But today's scientists must reach not only
their peers but also the public with objective information about the
benefits and consequences of their own work. They need to emulate the
"activist scientist" roles of Albert Einstein (who vocally opposed
militarism, Nazism, anti-Semitism and the careless use of nuclear
weapons), Stephen Jay Gould (who defends the teaching of evolution) and
Peter Raven and E.O. Wilson (who promote conservation).
The fact that most agricultural scientists and anti-GMO groups share a
common set of goals would seem to be the foundation for a partnership, if
only they could agree on the best approach. Genetic improvement has
expanded agricultural production dramatically to meet the needs of the
world's growing population. But agricultural research now receives a
smaller portion of public research dollars than ever before.
'Genetic Vulnerability' The "genetic vulnerability" of many major crop
gene pools and the growing concentration of germ plasm ownership in the
private sector reflect this diminished public investment. A partnership
between activists and scientists might reassert these shared goals as
national and even international priorities ñ before they are forced to the
forefront by more widespread disasters such as have befallen Ethiopia in
Yet, as long as anti-GMO groups totally rule out a role for genetically
modified crops, there may never be a consensus. GMO technology is at a
crossroads. Acceptance of GMO-derived products and crops will motivate
further progress toward safer food, lower pesticide use, more sustainable
agricultural practices and improved human health through more nutritious
foods. Rejection of GMOs will likely exacerbate ecological problems as our
current agricultural systems struggle to feed a growing world population.
The future of our food supply may well depend on who is most vocal and
most convincing: protesters or scientists.
(Andrew Paterson is a professor of crop and soil sciences, botany and
genetics and director of the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies with
the University of Georgia. Wayne Parrott is a professor of crop and soil
sciences with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and
Debating Biotech: Will GE Decimate the World’s Grocery Carts?
Thomas Connors; ChicagoTribune April 4, 2001
There was a time when polite conversation steered clear of two topics:
politics and religion. These days, one might add genetically engineered
food. Although the safety of genetically modified products and their
effects on the environment fuel the debate, a recent panel discussion at
the Illinois Institute of Art showed that politics, economics and ethics
influence what is becoming one of the profound issues of the day. A chef
worried about losing the diverse foodstuffs he's come to rely on. An
organic farmer said that genetic science is unable to guarantee the
security of its products. A biotechnologist suggested that consumers'
ignorance leaves them unable to make reasoned decisions. A food industry
spokeswoman insisted that the whole issue is not a priority for American
shoppers. And a cookbook author portrayed anti-biotech activism as
misinformed, at the least.
The panel discussion, one of several sponsored around the country by the
International Association of Culinary Professionals, ranged far and wide,
if not deeply. Safety first Attendees, who got a thumbnail history of
biotech from Peter Day, director of the Biotechnology Center for
Agriculture and the Environment at Cook College, Rutgers University,
quickly pressed him to address safety. "The best answer we've come up with
so far is that the materials that have been produced don't pose an
unreasonable risk," he said. "There is, in my opinion, a minute
possibility that there are some differences between engineered and
unengineered corn that we have not detected because we don't know how to
look for them." He compared that danger to the risk shoppers now take in
trusting that supermarket sweet corn doesn't retain pesticides.
Despite such high profile incidents as last year's recall of products
containing Starlite (sic) corn, which had a potential allergen, most
Americans don't know much about biotech, or even the basics of genetics,
Day said. In several surveys, "people have been picked at random and asked
which contains DNA: a tomato, a genetically engineered tomato, or both,"
he said. "And you'd be surprised at how many people think that only a
genetically engineered tomato contains DNA." Labels, and the price of
apples Critics of biotechnology counter that one reason consumers remain
in the dark is a lack of labels on genetically modified material. Cheryl
Toner, program manager for food safety with the International Food
Information Council, laid processors' anti-label stance at the door of the
Food and Drug Administration. "The FDA requires a special label on these
products only if there is a change in the end product," Toner said. "So
it's not the process by which they were grown, but if the final product
has changed in nutrition content, or if an allergen has been introduced."
Although food companies worry that labels will frighten consumers away,
Toby A. Ten Eyck, an assistant professor in the sociology department at
Michigan State University who also works for the National Food and
Toxicology Center in East Lansing, told an apple- based anecdote: Clearly
labeled irradiated and non-irradiated apples were sold side by side at the
same price. Both sold equally well. But when the price for the irradiated
fruit was lowered, shoppers chose it over the non-irradiated apples. "In
the U.S., compared to places like Europe," Ten Eyck said, "it's not
necessarily a matter of 'I've got to have a certain type of food.' It's,
'What's cheap?' "We also tend to be brand loyal." That leads him to
conclude that Americans would still pick up their favorite cereal even if
it carried a label acknowledging its genetically modified main ingredient.
Threat to the food supply
Much of this debate turns on how one views the reliability and integrity
of scientists. "Science doesn't yield proof, it yields probabilities,"
said Tom Ulick, director of King's Hill Farm, an organic operation in
southwest Wisconsin. He emphasized the distinction between genetic
engineering and other modern technology. "When we're working with genetic
engineering in plants, we're working with organisms that will never go
away," he said. "We can never clean them up. Their nature is to reproduce,
to evolve. "If we have a serious, unanticipated problem with genetic
engineering and we contaminate a major food crop--corn, soybeans,
wheat--if we have a serious problem that destroys a major food crop and
leaves it unfit for human use, we could very easily plunge the word into
starvation. Can we really open Pandora's box here, and do we open it based
on financial motives? And the people who open it, do they have the level
of consciousness and concern about society that's necessary to take that
kind of a risk?" For chef Michael Altenberg, whose Evanston restaurant
Campagnola uses organic produce, biotechnology threatens culinary variety.
"The issue to me is cross-pollination, of releasing some of these
genetically altered food products into the environment," he said. "If the
food chain is altered, perhaps the diversity is altered and I have less
product to work with." Politics, passion and Europeans
Author Irena Chalmers, whose pooh-poohing of the anti-biotech movement
irked several audience members, laid the blame for anti- biotech alarmism
on Europe, "where heavily subsidized farms are threatened by the prospect
of cheaper, high quality imported food." The English supermarkets that ban
genetically engineered foods do so not because such items are unsafe, she
said, "but because they can get more money for foods that are labeled
'non-GMO.' " "National pride is also at stake," she said. "We tend to
forget that Europe experienced severe food shortages during the Second
World War, and they are afraid of becoming overly reliant on imported
food, as well as potential dangers to the environment."
Here in the U.S., Toner said, shoppers worry about microbial contamination
more than genetic manipulation, according to research from the
International Food Information Council. "Focus groups are not
statistically significant, but what you can get from focus groups is a
general sense of what people are saying," she said. "It has surprised us
that people are still largely unaware that there are biotech foods on
shelves today." Despite the civility of the IACP panel, on the world
stage, the two camps are often engaged in demonizing one another.
Proponents of biotechnology cast the opposition as tree-hugging hypocrites
who cry for a clean planet but won't go anywhere without a plastic bottle
of water, while those opposed to GM food castigate multinational
agribusinesses as greedy behemoths that hide their profit motives behind
altruistic claims that new products will greatly enhance food production
in impoverished areas of the world. "Canning was controversial,
pasteurization was controversial, microwaves were controversial," Ten Eyck
said. "Technology, when it crosses into something like food, is
controversial. And this is going to be controversial for a long time."
Use transgenic plants to hike yield
COIMBATORE (India): The Vice-Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural
University (TNAU), Dr S. Kannaiyan, has called for the use of transgenic
pest resistance and biotechnology to tide over the biotic stresses
affecting crop yields.
Stating that the yield loss due to bollworm pest - Helicoverpa armigera
was as high as $1 billion, he said ``gene pyramiding could prove to be the
cheapest way of tackling agricultural pests and diseases''. ransgenic
plants expressing multiple resistance against various pests and diseases
might prove to be a suitable solution at this crucial moment, he added.
By opting for a combinatorial approach in deploying agronomically useful
trangenes, the farmer would not have to spend much on pesticides or any
chemical that added to environmental pollution, he observed.
Genetically Altered Foods Create a Quandary for Hunger Activists
Karen Owen; April 5, 2001 Knight Ridder
With their potential to end world hunger, who could blame anti-poverty
groups for seeing a savior in genetically modified crops? Genetically
altered food is so new, though, most religious and charitable groups
aren't quite sure what to make of it. Bread for the World, for instance,
has no official policy on genetically modified foods, said Jonathan Lamy,
a spokesman for the 45 000-member Christian advocacy movement. His group
hopes to have a conference on the issue later this year, Lamy said. "We
want more time to sit down and discuss it."
The Kentucky Council of Churches and the Kentucky Taskforce on Hunger have
taken no stand on the issue either. "We would probably follow the lead of
an agency like that," said the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, the church council's
executive director, referring to Bread for the World. On the one hand,
genetic engineering offers discoveries like Golden Rice, a staple crop
modified with a daffodil gene, reported Science & Spirit magazine's
January/February edition. The modification allows the rice plant to
produce beta carotene, which the body can convert to vitamin A. More than
3,000 children around the world die each day from vitamin A deficiency,
the rice's developer points out. The deficiency is also the largest
reversible cause of blindness in the developing world.
Opponents of genetically modified food, however, say the changes are being
introduced too fast, without enough information about how new varieties
affect existing ones, or the humans who may eat them. They point to
problems like the test subjects who had allergic reactions to soybeans
modified with a gene from Brazil nuts. The consumers reacted as if they
had eaten actual Brazil nuts, and previous animal testing had given no
warning, critics point out. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference,
for one, has taken a cautionary stance on the issue. "We don't have any
intrinsic problem with genetic modifications," said policy coordinator Bob
Gronski. His agency's big concern is the rapid commercial introduction of
genetically modified crops and seeds, he said. Also, "Our major concern is
how we see the whole science and technology being controlled by a handful
Hunger activists are wary of any claims by developers that genetic
modifications hold the key to feeding the world, Gronski said. "We tend to
think they're more concerned with securing markets. Feeding the world is
sort of secondary." The whole issue is so complicated, the Rural Life
Conference has been trying to condense its 30-page stand on the issue down
to a digestible one or two pages. So far, that hasn't been possible,
Gronski said. While the debate rages on, Bread for the World's 11th annual
report on world hunger, which came out last month, focused on foreign aid,
not futuristic agriculture practices, as the solution to world hunger.
Hunger has dropped dramatically in developing countries over the last 30
years but has doubled in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Bread for the
World. One person out of every three in that region is chronically
undernourished and 291 million people live on less than $1 a day.
"Effective, poverty-focused aid" could dramatically cut hunger, especially
in Africa, if efforts target "agriculture, education, infrastructure,
microenterprise, debt relief and health care," the organization says.
For just a penny a day per American, Bread for the World claims, the U.S.
could lead an international initiative to cut world hunger in half by
2015. The group is calling on Congress to allocate an additional $1
billion a year on poverty aid to Africa.
F.D.A. Finds Faulty Listings of Possible Food Allergens
I thought you might be interested in this NY Times article from 4/3, since
so much was made of the potential allergenicity of Cry9C corn. Again, it's
a matter of perspective that's been lost in much of the debate over GM. -
: Barry Palevitz
F.D.A. Finds Faulty Listings of Possible Food Allergens
By GREG WINTER, New York Times. April 3, 2001
An investigation of dozens of food companies by the Food and Drug
Administration has found that in spite of strict labeling laws, as many as
25 percent of manufacturers failed to list common ingredients that can
cause potentially fatal allergic reactions.
The mislabeling poses a threat to the roughly seven million Americans who
suffer from food allergies and who rely on a product's packaging to keep
them safe, according to the F.D.A. In recent years, there has been a sharp
increase in the amount of food recalled from store shelves for containing
allergy- provoking ingredients like peanuts and eggs that were not listed
on the product's label. Worried about the trend, the F.D.A. enlisted the
support of state regulators in Minnesota and Wisconsin to undertake a
series of inspections at food plants over the last two years, trying to
grasp the extent of the problem and correct it at the source.
The agency examined 85 companies of all sizes that were likely to use
common allergy triggers in abundance: cookie makers, candy companies and
ice cream manufacturers. Its report, which was completed earlier this
year, found that a quarter of the companies made products with raw
ingredients like nuts, but omitted them from the labels describing the
Perhaps more surprising, only slightly more than half of the manufacturers
checked their products to ensure that all of the ingredients were
accurately reflected on the labels, the report said, making it all the
more difficult for consumers to know which foods might cause allergic
reactions that are often life-threatening.
"The fact that ingredient listings can be dead wrong certainly points to
major shortfalls in food safety," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety
director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The accuracy
of a label can really save a life."
Although the cause of food allergies is still something of a mystery, they
are the most common cause of anaphylaxis, a severe reaction in which the
skin itches, the throat swells and breathing becomes short. In the most
serious cases, blood pressure falls, the heart beat fluctuates and some
victims die. The F.D.A. report does not discuss the prevalence of food
allergies, but every year, 30,000 people are rushed to emergency rooms
because of them, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and
Immunology. As many as 200 of them die.
Many of these illnesses occur at restaurants or in homes, and are not
necessarily the fault of a food manufacturer. Some schools have removed
peanut butter from their cafeterias and several airlines have taken steps
to accommodate passengers who have food allergies, including banning
peanuts as the traditional after-takeoff snack. It is not clear how many
allergic consumers have fatal reactions to mislabeled products, but even
when they do, the manufacturer may not be liable for them. Last August, a
Wisconsin jury ruled against the family of Joshua Ramirez, a 21-year- old
junior at a bible college who had a lifelong allergy to peanuts and who
died in 1996 after eating chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine
in his dormitory.
During the trial, the company, Slettin Vending Inc., acknowledged that the
cookies contained peanut residue, although the nuts did not appear on the
list of ingredients. Still, only a small amount of peanuts were found in
the cookies. It may have been enough to provoke a fatal reaction in
Joshua, the company concedes, but it was not sufficient for a jury to deem
the product unreasonably dangerous to the average consumer. That is the
standard of proof necessary in many product liability cases.
"People are convinced that with allergies you just get itchy, watery
eyes," said Dixie G. Ramirez, Joshua's mother. "They do not believe they
can be fatal." After suffering an allergic reaction, consumers can be
treated with a shot of epinephrine, and they are often encouraged to carry
the drug with them. But there is no medical treatment to prevent allergic
reactions to food from occurring. Even patients who receive epinephrine
may need additional treatment, so clear and accurate labels may be the
only thing standing between a susceptible consumer and a trip to the
As awareness of the problem grows, manufacturers say they are paying more
attention to what goes into their products, but it is often difficult for
them to know when ingredients that can provoke a reaction, called
allergens, slip into the food chain undetected. In fact, many of the
"hidden" allergens found in the F.D.A. study were not deliberately added,
but wound up in sweets because bakers routinely used the same utensils to
stir separate mixes, or reused baking sheets without washing them between
batches. Slettin, for example, used the same pan liners in its bakery from
one day to the next.
In some factories, parchment papers were used as many as 10 times before
being replaced, the F.D.A. found. In at least one plant, conveyor belts
that coated candies in chocolate were cleaned only once a year, allowing
peanut residue to get into products that as far as the manufacturer was
concerned, contained nothing risky at all. Such cross-contamination may
seem incidental. But for people with food allergies, ingesting as little
as one five-thousandth of a teaspoon of an allergen can induce a fatal
reaction within minutes, according to Dr. Hugh A. Sampson, director of
Mount Sinai School of Medicine's food allergy institute.
Current F.D.A. rules require companies to list everything that goes into
their products, but allow trace amounts of "natural" ingredients to be
omitted from labels. To close those loopholes, a coalition of attorneys
general in nine states, from New York to Wyoming, petitioned the F.D.A.
last May to issue new regulations. If enacted, the new rules would require
manufacturers to warn consumers that their products might contain
allergens, even if they are not deliberately added as ingredients.
Turning the petition into new regulations could take years, since
manufacturers would have ample opportunity to fight them. For now, the
F.D.A. says it is having more success persuading the industry to make
voluntary changes. In fact, the agency found that most of the companies it
inspected were willing to overhaul their manufacturing. But the F.D.A.
cannot afford to visit all food companies, prompting some lawmakers to
push for legislation with stricter standards. Representative Nita M.
Lowey, Democrat of New York, has introduced legislation in Congress to
require manufacturers to act to prevent unintentional contamination of
products, something the law does not now require.
It also calls upon food companies to list allergens by their "common
English" names. Even when they do appear on labels, many ordinary
allergens are referred to by their formal names, like "casein" for milk or
"albumin" for eggs.
"To the lay person, these terms are Greek," said Anne MuÒoz-Furlong,
founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "The labels are
written for scientists, not for consumers."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company *
SILENCE IS PRESCRIPTION FOR PETA'S FOOT-IN-MOUTH DISEASE
April 4, 2001; Steve Kopperud, (202)776-0071; Kay Johnson, (703)524-0810
(Forwarded by: Jamie Bishop )
WASHINGTON, DC. PETA head Ingrid Newkirk is obviously suffering from a
severe case of foot-in-mouth disease, saying yesterday she's hoping for an
outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock in the United States,
said a national education foundation supported by American farmers and
"She can't be serious," said Steve Kopperud, president of the Animal
Industry Foundation (AIF), a charitable education group which develops
programs on American farming and ranching. "If she said it, our
prescription is that PETA take a vow of silence". Leave farm animal care
and wellbeing to the experts farmers, ranchers and the army of government
and private experts in veterinary and animal science trying to keep this
disease out of the U.S.
"Such grandstanding reveals incredible callousness, a lack of compassion
for both animals and people," Kopperud added. The animal suffering would
be monumental, he added, asking how anyone, with even the most basic
compassion for animals, could wish such a devastating disease and possible
death on America's millions of livestock?
The economic devastation suffered by millions of farm families would be
even more horrendous, he said, citing suicides and bankruptcies across the
United Kingdom in the wake of its current food-and-mouth crisis. At the
same time, food prices would skyrocket, while availability would drop
'How can Newkirk and PETA say in one breath they care about ethical‚
treatment of animals ˆ or people for that matter -- while apparently
salivating over the possibility that such a catastrophe might happen
here?" said Kay Johnson, AIF vice president. "This is typical PETA. It
says anything to get headlines.
Kopperud and Johnson said they agree with PETA on one point only -- it is
time for "consumers to wake up." The public needs to understand that such
statements reveal PETA's total lack of credibility on animal care and
"The best cure for foot-in-mouth disease is to stop talking. American
consumers are tired of PETA‚s preaching, telling everyone what to eat,
what to wear, what movies to see, who's good and who's bad, they said.
"From what we've seen, PETA spends most of its money on vegetable costumes
and flying people around the country who are willing to take their clothes
off to raise more money the AIF executives said. "It's time for this group
to be very quiet -- and as someone once said, "It would be good for the
animals, good for consumers, and good for the environment."
Laboratory Tests Belie Promises Of Some 'GMO-Free' Food Labels
From: Katie Thrasher :
- Following is a Wall Street Journal piece concerning the validity of a
"non-GMO" label. The Journal purchased and tested several food items
labeled "non-GMO" to see if the claim was true, in many cases the items
contained biotech material. The piece takes a look at the issues
surrounding the certification of food—including traceability, channeling
and pollen drift. The safety of biotech foods as well as the current and
draft labeling guidelines were mentioned, but not highlighted.
Laboratory Tests Belie Promises Of Some 'GMO-Free' Food Labels
Wall Street Journal April 5, 2001
By PATRICIA CALLAHAN and SCOTT KILMAN Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET
A year ago, Yves Veggie Cuisine placed a new label on its products:
That six-letter term is supposed to signify that a product isn't made from
crops that have been genetically modified. It's an important designation
for many natural-foods consumers, such as the customers of Yves, a
Canadian maker of vegetarian dishes sold throughout the U.S.
If it didn't exclude genetically modified organisms, founder Yves Potvin
worries, Yves might "lose a certain segment of our consumers."
But are Yves ingredients truly unmodified? A recent sample of Yves
Canadian Veggie Bacon, purchased from a Chicago grocery store, had a
significant concentration of genetically modified soybeans. A laboratory
test conducted for The Wall Street Journal showed that about 40% of the
soybean DNA detected in the sample came from genetically modified plants.
Informed of this result, Yves halted production of its Veggie Bacon line.
It also notified its retailers that the Veggie Bacon boxes on their
shelves contain a genetically modified ingredient. Yves, which has annual
sales of $60 million, says it pays its suppliers extra for ingredients
that are screened -- last year, the additional cost was $500,000 -- and
that genetically modified soybeans ended up in the product as the result
of a supplier mix-up. An Yves spokesman said the amount found in the
Journal's test is "impossible," and that the company is conducting its own
laboratory analysis of Veggie Bacon. Yves isn't recalling packages already
on the shelves because "there are no safety or health issues" associated
with genetically modified soybeans, he said.
A Hot Trend
The non-GMO label -- the initials stand for "genetically modified
organisms" -- is one of the hottest trends in food marketing. Virtually
unknown in the U.S. as recently as three years ago, the label now pops up
in nearly every aisle of the supermarket, on hundreds of products ranging
from pasta, produce and breakfast cereal to frozen entrees, condiments and
beverages. The designation is so new that most marketing firms don't track
it as a separate category. But industry executives believe the non-GMO
segment is growing about as fast as that of organic products -- foods
produced without synthetic chemicals -- a $7.8 billion market that is
increasing at eight times the rate of the packaged food business as a
In late January, a national telephone poll funded by the Pew Charitable
Trusts found that 75% of respondents wanted to know about the presence of
genetically modified ingredients in food, and 58% opposed such
ingredients. For a growing number of Americans, the non-GMO label is the
basis for choosing one brand of energy bar or tortilla chip over another.
"It's 90% of my decision whether I'm going to buy" a particular product,
says Debra Daniels-Zeller, a 48-year-old vegetarian-cooking teacher and
writer in Edmonds, Wash.
When 'GMO-Free' Isn't
But consumers are getting more genetically modified ingredients than they
think. The Yves sample was one of 20 food products that a prominent food
laboratory tested on behalf of the Journal. Each of the products bore a
label that read "non-GMO" or "GMO-free," or otherwise specified that none
of the crops used to make ingredients were genetically modified. Of the 20
products tested, 11 contained evidence of genetic material used to modify
plants and another five contained more-substantial amounts.
It isn't possible to determine whether the Journal's test results reflect
the industry average. No government agency or trade group verifies the
accuracy of non-GMO labels. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has
approved the use of most genetically modified crops in human food, and
these approved ingredients have not been shown to cause health problems.
However, the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits placing
misleading labels on food products. If even a tiny amount of bioengineered
material is present in a product bearing a non-GMO label, the manufacturer
would be violating the law, says Joseph A. Levitt of the FDA. Any company
that did this "would have to change its label," says Mr. Levitt, director
of the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
While it's clear many consumers want a non-GMO label, it isn't clear that
companies can apply such a label with absolute certainty. Some of their
own suppliers advise against the use of any label suggesting a product is
free of genetically modified ingredients. For example, DuPont Co., which
supplies soybean powder to companies pitching non-GMO brands, won't
guarantee that its product is free of genetically modified DNA. "To get
the figure of zilch is very difficult," says Nigel Hill, a vice president
of DuPont's Protein Technologies International unit.
The problem, regulators and growers say, is that some geneticallymodified
crops -- which have been designed to resist disease, pests and chemicals
-- can cross-pollinate freely with regular crops, passing along their
altered traits to the next generation. This has already proved to be the
case with StarLink, a brand of corn that was genetically modified to
produce its own pesticide. In the mid-1990s, the Environmental Protection
Agency determined from routine tests that StarLink might cause allergic
reactions in some people. As a result, the government didn't approve
StarLink for human consumption and it was planted purely as a feed for
livestock on just 0.4% of U.S. corn acres.
Recalling the Corn Dogs
But recently, StarLink began turning up in 10% of corn at some of the
nation's big grain processors. Over the past six months, more than 300
food products have been recalled after testing positive for StarLink,
including certain batches of Kraft taco shells, Kroger corn tortillas and
a Kellogg unit's meatless corn dog. Dozens of people have reported to
health authorities that they believe they had allergic reactions to eating
products made from StarLink. Aventis SA, the French pharmaceuticals
concern that invented StarLink, submitted data to the government to show
the toxin is present in food in such tiny amounts that it can't trigger an
allergic reaction in humans.
Unlike StarLink, the genetically modified soybean and corn most often
found in food is cleared for human consumption. It is also grown much more
widely on U.S. farms. For example, Monsanto Co. five years ago introduced
a soybean implanted with a gene from a soil microorganism to make the
plant invulnerable to the company's Roundup weedkiller. The altered
soybeans save farmers a lot of time by making it possible for them to weed
fields chemically without harming their crop. As a result, half of the
soybeans grown in the U.S. last year contained the Monsanto gene.
In the tests conducted for the Journal, several soybean products bearing
non-GMO labels tested positive for Monsanto's gene. One example was Health
Valley Soy O's Honey Nut Cereal. The box proclaims it's "the first
great-tasting cereal made with the healthy benefits of soy protein and
contains no genetically modified ingredients." In a sample tested by the
Journal, 1.4% of the soybean DNA detected came from genetically modified
Health Valley is made by Hain Celestial Group Inc., Uniondale, N.Y., the
nation's largest natural-foods manufacturer. In a written statement, Hain
questioned the accuracy of the Journal's results, suggesting that "at
these levels human error could have resulted in the sample being
contaminated" at the lab. The company said that before it made the Soy O's
purchased by the Journal, its supplier tested a sample of the lot of
crushed soybeans that went into the cereal, and a lab report shows the
results were negative.
Hain said it is testing a sample of Soy O's from the batch the Journal
bought, and it expects results next week. The company also said it is
testing its manufacturing systems to ensure the product wasn't
contaminated there. Hain said it requires its suppliers to sign affidavits
that they don't use genetically modified soybeans. The company said it
remains committed to putting a "contains no genetically modified
ingredients" label on its entire line of 2,000 natural-foods products by
year end, up from 150 products currently.
The non-GMO claim on energy bars made by Clif Bar Inc. was also
contradicted by the Journal's test. In samples from three bars, the
highest concentration of genetically modified soybean DNA was found in the
chocolate-chip peanut-crunch flavor: 6.6%. Regular chocolate-chip flavor
had 3.1%; carrot-cake flavor contained 1.2%.
Fourteen Pages of Pledges
In a written statement, Clif Bar Chief Executive Officer Gary Erickson
said the company tests its products at an independent lab and requires its
suppliers to certify in writing that the ingredients contain only
nonbioengineered soy. He attached 14 pages of pledges from suppliers, as
well as test results from Iowa State University's seed-testing laboratory
showing that two samples of seed used to grow its crop contained no
genetically modified material.
"Despite these state-of-the-art efforts, there remain factors beyond our
control that will require advances in agriculture and food-testing
practices," Mr. Erickson wrote. "Current agricultural storage, handling
and shipping practices make it all but impossible to keep bioengineered
soy from contaminating nongenetically engineered soy." The company also
said it planned to conduct its own test of the "raw ingredients" used in
the Clif Bars purchased by the Journal.
In an interview, Mr. Erickson said the company, based in Berkeley, Calif.,
is "doing everything it can" to avoid genetically modified ingredients.
"That doesn't mean we're not going to make mistakes along the way," he
To conduct its tests, the Journal paid GeneScan USA, a unit of Germany's
GeneScan Europe AG. Its laboratory in Belle Chasse, La., also performs
genetic analysis for some of America's food giants, such as Philip Morris
Co.'s Kraft unit. GeneScan USA's president, Michael Russell, won't discuss
results of tests his firm has done for other clients, but he says his
experience has led him to discourage them from touting products as
GMO-free. "You can't promise that," he says.
Mr. Levitt, the FDA official, says the agency is drawing up guidelines for
a more accurate labeling system. He says the agency objects to the term
"genetically modified organism" because there aren't any living organisms
in most food. The agency also dislikes the phrase "non-GMO" because
consumers might infer something undesirable has been removed. "The FDA has
given the stamp of approval, safetywise" to bioengineered crops being
grown for human consumption, he says.
The agency doesn't even require makers of genetically modified food crops
to conduct clinical feeding trials of humans or animals. The FDA's
position is that the altered crops are safe to eat provided their new
genes make substances similar to proteins and enzymes already safely in
the food supply. The new genes in all approved genetically modified crops
do just that, in the agency's opinion. (In the case of StarLink, the
transplanted gene programmed the corn plant to make a completely new
version of a natural pesticide.)
But some scientists worry that moving a gene from an unrelated species
into a plant could upset a delicate balance, perhaps by triggering its new
host to suddenly increase production of a toxin normally made only in
small amounts. Many plants, such as tomatoes and potatoes, make very
complicated chemical compounds, including some that can be poisonous.
Some consumers also fear that health problems, such as serious food
allergies, could arise in the future from eating even trace amounts of
genetically modified food. There is also a concern among some consumers
about eating foods, such as Monsanto's modified "Roundup Ready" soybeans,
that have been specifically designed to be sprayed with chemical
Another issue is that changing the nature of plants could damage nature at
large. Recent studies by Cornell University and Iowa State University have
found that pollen from a genetically modified corn plant might be fatal to
the Monarch butterfly. "We humans are unleashing a potential disaster for
the natural balance of all life forms on this planet," warns the Web site
of Nature's Path Foods Inc., a Canadian cereal maker that uses a non-GMO
Across the Atlantic, concerns such as these in the late 1990s prompted an
outcry unlike anything witnessed in the U.S. Consumer groups protested the
creation of what they called "Frankenfoods." Supermarkets began touting
their house brands as made from unmodified ingredients. In 1998, the
European Union passed a law requiring food companies to place labels on
products containing genetically modified ingredients. In an acknowledgment
that zero tolerance is unrealistic, the EU in January 2000 began mandating
the label only on products containing 1% or more of a genetically modified
Having won the labeling battle, European critics of genetically modified
food -- most notably the environmental group Greenpeace -- decided two
years ago to export the cause. Until then, neither Americans nor American
food companies had shown much concern about genetically modified
ingredients, which had been streaming into the U.S. food supply since 1996.
Greenpeace Leans On Gerber
Figuring that new parents are especially concerned about food safety,
Greenpeace focused on the nation's largest baby-food maker, Gerber
Products Co. When a Greenpeace-funded laboratory test in 1999 found an
unspecified amount of genetically modified material in Gerber Mixed Cereal
for Baby, the company immediately announced that it would ask its
suppliers to provide only unmodified ingredients.
The Gerber announcement made front-page news. But while Gerber took the
position to avoid negative publicity, other food companies saw in it a
chance for positive attention. After all, while the packaged-food industry
was growing at a rate of barely 2.6% a year, the natural-foods market was
growing at double-digit rates. Clif Bar, for example, saw its 2000 sales
jump nearly 80% to $71 million. Hain has posted such steady gains that
slow-growing H.J. Heinz Co. bought an 18% stake in it.
Taking the Gerber move a step further, scores of other natural-foods
makers not only requested unmodified ingredients from suppliers, but also
placed non-GMO labels on their products.
Those products enjoy prominent space on the shelves of many stores,
including the nation's largest natural-foods retailing chain, Whole Foods
Market Inc., based in Austin, Texas. Long a promoter of organic foods,
Whole Foods now urges the companies whose products it stocks to use
nongenetically modified ingredients. Brochures in its 121 stores warn
customers about the potential dangers of genetically modified crops.
The brochures also promise that the retailer itself is working to
eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its hundreds of
house-brand products. Since last year, the company has changed recipes of
some products to cut out genetically modified ingredients, has had its
suppliers sign contracts that they won't use such ingredients and has
regularly tested its products at an independent lab. Take its "365"-brand
soy burgers. "That's one of the products where I'd like to put a (non-GMO)
sticker on the outside of the box," said Denis Ring, a manager of the 365
brand, in a recent interview. "Since last summer, all of our soy burgers
are made from soy that was guaranteed made from non-GMO."
But the Journal laboratory tests, which also examined some products not
bearing the non-GMO label, found that 21% of the soybean DNA present in a
sample of Whole Food's 365 low-fat Meat Free Gourmet Burger originated
from Roundup Ready plants.
Mr. Ring said the box of soy burgers the Journal bought was produced in
the early fall of 1999 -- before the company's supplier converted to
non-genetically modified soy. "I omitted to comment on the possibility
that there could have been older inventory still in distribution," Mr.
Ring said of his earlier statement about the status of the soy burgers.
Mr. Ring noted that the company never publicly said its soy burgers did
not contain genetically modified ingredients. Still, Whole Foods is now
asking its stores to destroy or donate to a food bank any vegetarian
burgers made before January 2000, when the company says its supplier
converted to non-GMO soy. Mr. Ring said he hopes to have all of the
vegetarian burgers that may contain genetically modified ingredients off
the shelf by the end of this week. "We're trying to eliminate any chance
for customer confusion," Mr. Ring said.
Across the country, small grain mills are springing up to fill the demand
for nongenetically modified ingredients. One example is Natural Products
Inc., an Iowa miller that handles only non-GMO soybeans. After refining it
into flour, it tests a Dixie-Cup-sized sample from every order, which can
The process is so imperfect that Paul Lang, managing director of Natural
Products, shakes his head at the sight of a carton of Silk-brand soymilk
sitting in his office. The carton promises that its contents are
"Certified GMO Free Soy." Mr. Lang, whose company has supplied Silk parent
White Wave Inc., says, "There's no such thing as certified GMO-free."
That is also the position of SunRich Inc., based in Hope, Minn., another
supplier of nongenetically modified product to White Wave. "I wouldn't say
GMO free," says Allan Routh, SunRich chief executive.
White Wave's Silk is the nation's biggest brand of refrigerated soymilk.
The company, which also makes tofu and other soy products, has annual
sales of about $80 million and is growing at a triple-digit rate. White
Wave founder and president Steve Demos insisted in a recent interview that
Silk soymilk is "100% non-GMO," a claim he said countless laboratory tests
commissioned by White Wave have confirmed. "The Silk product has come up
zeroes every time," Mr. Demos said.
But in the Journal test, a sample of three DNA extracts from the same
sample of Silk Chocolate Soymilk tested positive for the presence of
genetic material commonly used to bioengineer plants. So little was
detected that the source of the material couldn't be verified.
Informed of the test results, Steve McCutcheon, director of quality
assurance at White Wave, said Wednesday that the genetic material had
never been detected in tests conducted for it over the past few years by
Genetic ID, an independent laboratory in Fairfield, Iowa.
Mr. McCutcheon said White Wave officials have been making plans to change
the Silk carton later this year and that the company would "probably" back
away from its absolute claim that the product contains "Certified GMO Free
Soy." But in a separate interview shortly afterward, Mr. Demos, the White
Wave president, said the company has no plans to change the label.
Mr. Demos also yesterday retracted his earlier statement that Silk was
"100% non-GMO" and noted that "we don't say anything on the product about
100%." He challenged the reliability of the Journal's test results, saying
that he believes the Silk product tested by the Journal "lived up to the
standard of GMO free." "We do not believe that there is any evidence based
on methodology that is repeatable and verifiable that our product is
anything but that," he said.
Even the most scrupulous farmers can fail to keep bioengineered crops
separate from conventional ones, as Iowa Soy, a processor based in Vinton,
Iowa, can attest. The company, which was founded three years ago by
investors and farmers anticipating the demand for nongenetically modified
products, has imposed an elaborate system of security measures. It checks
the seeds used by its farmers, who last year grew a total of 3,000 acres
of soybeans for the company. Growers are given instructions for cleaning
their equipment and are required to fill out reports about their
cultivation practices. Iowa Soy representatives inspect each field before
'We Still Have Rejects'
Outcome: 5% of the crop screened by Iowa Soy turned up positive for
genetically modified material. "Even with all the steps we take, we still
have these rejects," says Dan Van Steenhuyse, president of Iowa Soy.
Indeed, neither the ecosystem nor the U.S. agricultural system is designed
to maintain separation of two crops that look identical -- and in fact are
identical except for one gene.
The problem starts with seed. When a farmer purchases a bag of
conventional corn seed, there are no guarantees that all of the kernels
are unmodified. Even if the seed came from a field of unmodified corn
harvested the previous autumn, some of that corn may have been fertilized
by pollen carried on the wind from a genetically modified field miles away.
Once the farmer plants the seed, that same phenomenon can repeat itself,
with wind-borne pollen increasing the reach of genetically modified corn.
Come harvest, the farmer may use the same equipment to gather both
modified and unmodified crops; many farmers grow both. Even a thorough
cleaning of the equipment between fields can leave grain in the recesses
of a combine, and a farmer during harvest may inadvertently mix different
crops from his own fields. Few farmers can afford two separate sets of
The grain elevator -- which stores crops until they're sold -- is also a
potential trouble spot. Inadequate testing of farmer shipments can result
in a load of genetically modified crop contaminating millions of bushels
of conventional crop. These days, some elevators are paying a premium for
crops that aren't genetically modified, giving farmers an incentive to
advertise their harvest as such.
The next link in the chain is the grain processor, which buys crops from
farmers and grain elevators and mills them into ingredients used by such
companies as Coca-Cola Co., McDonald's Corp. and Kellogg Co. The biggest
grain processors, Cargill Inc. and Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., grind and
crush millions of bushels a day. They can't slow down the production of
some products to separate genetically modified kernels from conventional
There doesn't appear to be any simple way of closing the gap between what
labels promise and what laboratory tests reveal. In the European Union,
the new disclosure requirement squelched public outcry, creating among
consumers what is likely a false sense of security about products not
labeled as genetically modified. The problem: Enforcement is left to
individual countries, most of which make little or no effort to test
consumer products. A recent and rare test by the Swedish government found
that 10 out of 100 products not labeled as containing genetically modified
ingredients had levels higher than 1%, a violation of law.
One possibility would be for companies to talk about efforts rather than
outcomes. This is what Gerber did. Its public statements merely promised
that the company would strive to exclude genetically modified ingredients.
It never placed a non-GMO label on its baby food, because it doesn't
believe it could back up such a label. "I don't think anybody in the U.S.
can guarantee zero," says Frank Palantoni, chief executive of the North
American consumer-health businesses for Gerber parent Novartis AG.
But consumers might not catch the subtlety. Articles in newspapers and
mainstream magazines have tended to focus more on the promise than on the
hedge. Jennifer Hough, a 30-year-old dietician in Winston-Salem, N.C.,
said she read about Gerber's efforts, and consequently chose Gerber to
feed to her baby daughter.
The Journal tests found that 1.1% of the corn DNA in a sample of Gerber
Mixed Cereal for Baby was from genetically modified plants, as was 11% of
the corn DNA detected in a sample of Gerber Creamed Corn. When told of
this result, Mrs. Hough said she would switch brands, even though it isn't
clear that any baby food can guarantee the absence of any genetically
modified ingredients. "I guess I should know better than to believe
everything I read," she said.
Jan Relford, Gerber senior vice president of research, said the Journal
tests of the box of Gerber Mixed Cereal for Baby, which was manufactured
last September, confirms its own findings. Despite the company's switch to
organic corn in 1999, its own tests detected genetically modified DNA in
its dry cereal. So in December, Gerber gave up and replaced the corn with
a grain that it's sure isn't genetically modified: rice. Gerber said its
boxes of the dry cereal containing corn might linger on store shelves for
up to a year.
Unlike its approach to dry cereal, Gerber doesn't test jars of baby food
for genetically modified DNA. The company assumes that processing and
high-temperature sterilization destroys plant DNA, and that if any
survives, it can't be accurately measured. "We don't think your test
method is valid," says Mr. Relford of the Journal's result for Gerber's
GeneScan stands by its numbers. The lab calculates that about 90% of the
corn DNA -- but not all of it -- was destroyed by Gerber's processing.
Gerber routinely retains GeneScan to test for genetically modified
ingredients in its own products. Last year, GeneScan found a trace of
genetically modified DNA in a sample of raw corn grown for Gerber's
Creamed Corn, according to Gerber.
"It would be really tough for somebody to say they are GMO-free," says
Gerber's Mr. Relford. "That's why we've never said that."
Write to Patricia Callahan at firstname.lastname@example.org and Scott Kilman