When a team of activists wearing white hazmat suits showed up at a Chicago grocery store to protest the sale of genetically modified foods, they picked an unlikely target: Whole Foods Market.
Organic foods, by definition, can’t knowingly contain genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. But genetically modified corn, soy and other crops have become such common ingredients in processed foods that even one of the nation’s top organic food retailers says it hasn’t been able to avoid stocking some products that contain them.
“No one would guess that there are genetically engineered foods right here in Whole Foods,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, which organized the protest. The activists dramatically trashed a battery of well-known health food brands outside the store, including Tofutti, Kashi and Boca Burgers.
Though people have been modifying foodstuffs through selective breeding and other methods for centuries, genetically modified crops differ in that the plants grow from seeds in which DNA splicing has been used to place genes from another source into a plant. In this way, the crop can be made to withstand a weed-killing pesticide, for example, or incorporate a bacterial toxin that can repel pests.
Some consumers are concerned that such changes may pose health risks and say manufacturers should be required to prove GMOs are safe for human consumption before putting them on the market. They also say products containing genetically modified ingredients should be identified for the consumer. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations that does not require such labeling or testing.
Industry representatives say that GMOs are safe and that labeling them is unnecessary, citing a 1992 statement from the FDA saying the agency had no reason to believe GMOs “differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” No mainstream regulatory organization in the U.S. has opposed the introduction of GMOs.
“FDA has the scientific and nutrition expertise to establish food labeling and to assess food safety,” said Ab Basu, the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s acting executive vice president for food and agriculture. “You can look at the FDA website and see that if the corn is substantially equivalent to corn produced conventionally, there is no reason to label it as being any different.”
Critics of the technology say they are concerned not only about possible health risks but also about soil and plant nutrient losses, contamination of non-GMO crops and increased pesticide use.
With an unprecedented number of genetically modified crops being greenlighted by the Obama administration in recent months amid public debate — including ethanol corn, alfalfa and sugar beets under certain conditions — some advocates say the issues may be reaching the awareness of consumers beyond the health-conscious shoppers who frequent Whole Foods.
They cite polls taken by the Pew Center, Consumers Union and Harris Interactive over the last decade that have consistently found the vast majority of Americans would like to see genetically modified foods better regulated and labeled.
“If companies say genetic engineering is fine, then OK let’s label it and let the consumers make their own decisions,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, which produces Consumer Reports. “That’s what all the free market supporters say. So let’s let the market work properly.”
Michael Jacobsen, executive director for Center for Science in the Public Interest, which does not oppose GMOs, says many manufacturers see labeling as too risky.
“No food company would use GMOs if they had to label them because there is no benefit to the companies,” he said. “The term GMO has become a toxic term, and so if a company figures they will lose maybe 2 percent of their sales why should they? It’s all loss for them.”
In fact, a 2006 study for the Pew Initiative for Food and Biotechnology found that only 23 percent of women (the primary shopping decision makers) thought genetically modified foods were safe.