As part of its job as a consumer protection agency, the Food and Drug Administration requires that food manufacturers label their products so consumers know just what they are getting. By law, all labels must clearly state what’s in the product—all ingredients, including artificial ingredients, preservatives, and additives—and how the food was processed. For instance, labels must state whether the food is “fresh” or “from concentrate,” and if the food has been irradiated or pasteurized. If there is concern about the safety of an ingredient, the label must carry a health warning stating so.
This “truth in labeling” philosophy does not include genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). In 1992, the FDA declared that foods containing GMOs need not be labeled as such, deeming these foods “Generally Recognized as Safe.” According to US law, for a substance to obtain this status, “the substance must be the subject of a substantial amount of peer-reviewed studies and there must be overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that the product is safe.” Genetically-modified foods did not meet either criteria, yet the FDA set a policy that does not require any safety testing or labeling of these foods. Instead, the biotech companies that create the GMOs are left to determine whether their products are safe, or not.
Unlike traditional breeding, grafting, or cross-pollinating, which succeed or fail by natural processes, genetic engineering involves taking genes from one species and forcing them into the DNA of another species, changing the molecular biology of that organism. To do this, scientists often use bacteria and/or viruses to “infect” the DNA of one organism with the genes of another organism. The result is an organism that would be impossible to obtain through natural processes like crossbreeding or grafting. An internal FDA document confirms that, “The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks.”
Proponents tout the benefits of genetically-modified crops—vitamin fortified grains, highly productive crops that would feed millions of starving people, etc. But in fact, the only two traits found in nearly all commercialized genetically-modified plants are herbicide tolerance and/or pesticide production. This means that the plant is resistant to large doses of herbicides or that the plant produces pesticides in its own cells. In fact, the widespread use of genetically-modified crops engineered to tolerate herbicides has led to a sharp increase of the chemicals in the U.S. and is creating herbicide-resistant “super weeds” and an increase in chemical residues in U.S. food, according to a report released in late 2009. As more farmers have adopted variations of corn, soybeans, and cotton bred to tolerate weed killer in recent years, the use of herbicides has increased steadily, with herbicide use growing by 383 million pounds from 1996 to 2008, according to the report released by The Organic Center, the Union for Concerned Scientists, and the Center for Food Safety.
When GMOs were first introduced into the food supply in the mid-1990s, scientists warned that they were unpredictable and could create foods that were toxic, allergenic, and less nutritious than their conventional counterparts. An increasing number of scientific studies support these concerns.
Consider these statistics: 94 percent of all soybeans grown in this country are genetically modified, 88 percent of all corn is genetically modified, 95 percent of sugar beets and 90 percent of all canola is genetically modified. In fact, it is estimated that 70 percent of the “convenience foods” sold in grocery stores contain some genetically-engineered ingredients. Ubiquitous ingredients like lecithin, xanthan gum, corn starch, corn syrup, fructose, soy protein, and soy isolate are often derived from genetically-modified crops like corn or soy. Additionally, conventionally-raised animals are often fed genetically-modified feed and are injected with genetically-engineered hormones. Even the foods you buy at the natural foods store could contain ingredients that have been genetically modified. Because the FDA does not require any labeling on these foods, it is impossible for manufacturers, retailers, or consumers to tell which foods may contain genetically-engineered ingredients.
At Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, we strive to offer our customers the absolute safest and highest-quality natural products available. However, the truth is that some of the natural products on the market, including some sold at our stores, have the potential to contain GMOs. Because the FDA does not require manufacturers to label food products that contain genetically-modified ingredients, it is hard to know which products contain GMOs, unless they are labeled as USDA organic or “non-GMO.” We make it a priority to stock many organic items (which do not allow GMOs) and look for new products that state “non-GM corn,” “non-GM soy” or “no GMOs” on the label. That said, we do have a number of very popular, longtime brands on our shelves that are not USDA organic or do not make the statement “no GMOs” in which case you can assume that there is the potential for the product to contain genetically-modified ingredients. Unfortunately, it is beyond our abilities as a retailer to do much more than advocate for mandatory labeling laws and continue to offer GMO-free and organic products in our stores.
The FDA’s job is to ensure that the food we eat is pure and that labels on food products are informative and truthful. The FDA’s website states that “The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety of our nation’s food supply. Consumers rely on product labels to know what the product is and how to use it. The FDA regulates what’s on these labels to ensure that they are truthful and that they provide useable information that helps consumers make healthy, safe decisions when using the product.”
We urge you to call and write your legislators and encourage them to advocate mandatory labeling of genetically-modified foods. Public demand in Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand brought about mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically-modified ingredients in those countries. Until legislation is passed requiring mandatory labeling of GMOs, buy from companies that label their products as non-GMO and opt for organic. The National Organic Standards Board prohibits the use of GMOs in organic production and requires 100-percent organic feed for organic livestock. But be aware that as genetically-modified crops become more prevalent, the spread of their seeds and pollen is a serious concern. Even organic foods may be contaminated with traces of GMOs that have been spread by the wind, birds, or bees.
Visit these websites for more information on genetically-modified foods and ways to get involved: