March 9, 2000

Genes with Your Salsa?

Public Pushes for Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods

By Robin Eisner

N E W   Y O R K, March 8-- How do you know if the tortilla chip you are
crunching contains corn bio-engineered with a novel gene that makes the
plant toxic to certain caterpillars?

You can't know.

Since genetically modified (GM) foods came on the market in 1992, the Food
and Drug Administration has deemed most of these products no different in
safety or quality than conventional food and, therefore, requiring no
distinction in labeling.

But the public now seems to want to know if they are eating genetically
engineered foods. Two bills are before Congress, one in the House of
Representatives introduced in November by Congressman Dennis Kucinich,
D-Ohio, and another introduced Feb. 22 in the Senate by Barbara Boxer,
D-Calif., are calling for the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also just released new rules that
prohibit genetically modified foods in products labeled as organic.

Survey Supports Legislation

On Saturday, Les Dames d'Escoffier, a prestigious international women's
culinary organization, released results of a survey which found that 86
percent of the 1,012 people sampled would like labels characterizing
genetically modified food.

Les Dames decided to sponsor the survey because they hoped to find out how
the public felt about GM foods.

"We seem to always hear about what the agri-biotechnology companies, the
environmentalists and the government thinks about this issue, but we wanted
to get an independent sense of what consumers thought," said Les Dames
spokeswoman Saralie Slonksy at a meeting Saturday in New York about
bio-engineered foods.

International Communications Research, of Media, Pa., queried randomly
selected adults throughout the country over the age of 18 and questioned
them about their knowledge of genetically engineered foods. Most were found
to be uninformed about such products, yet equal numbers thought them to be
safe and unsafe. The survey has a 3 percent margin of error.

A Lot of Bio-engineered Corn, Soy

Approximately 50 percent of the soybean crop planted in 1999 in the United
States carries a novel, non-soybean gene that makes it resistant to the
herbicide Roundup, used to control weeds, according to the FDA. The gene
allows the plant to metabolize the chemical herbicide.

About a quarter of the U.S. corn planted in 1999 contains a protein derived
from a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt), toxic to the European
corn borer. Such corn reduces the need for insecticides. Both new crops hit
the market in 1996.

While food processors employ Bt corn and modified soy, they are mostly used
as animal feed.

Yet, DNA analysis performed by the watchdog Consumers Union found that
several popular foods contain genetically modified plants: McDonald's veggie
burgers, Ovaltine Malt powdered beverage mix, Bac-O's Bacon flavored bits,
some Bravos Tortilla Chips, Old El Paso Taco Shells and Jiffy Corn Muffin

FDA Assures Safety

The FDA says these products are safe and do not need special labeling. DNA,
or genes, are in plants harvested by conventional breeding, the agency says.
The body also metabolizes the protein coded for by the added gene no
differently than the millions of other proteins we eat every day. Finally,
the argument goes, the pesticides and herbicides, now parts of the plants,
also have been present as residues in non-engineered crops; they're just
sprayed on after the fact, rather than being built in.

So far, none of the foods evaluated by the FDA for consumer use have caused
allergies. In the mid-1990s, a soybean with a gene from the Brazil nut never
made it to market because it caused allergic reactions in volunteers during
pre-market testing, according to Val Giddings, spokesman for the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington, D.C-based trade

"What happened with this soybean indicates the system works," Giddings says.

Independent of safety issues, labeling supporters say the FDA should require
the labeling of genetically modified foods because such information is of
interest to consumers, according to Consumers Union spokeswoman Jean
Halloran. The agency requires labeling of irradiated foods, frozen foods and
juices made from concentrate, Halloran says. "It could do the same for
biotech foods," she says.

Biotech Industry Against Labeling

Michael Philips, spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Association, also
challenged the findings of the Les Dames survey. He said a survey by the
International Food Information Council, an organization funded by the food,
beverage and agricultural industry, found that once people were told the
FDA's position on genetically modified foods, they felt no need for special

Philips pointed out the FDA requires special labeling of genetically
modified products that are substantially different in nutrient value than
traditional foods or that in some way may cause allergies. Soybean and
canola oil from plants designed to have special fatty acids have been

To ensure the FDA's policy on genetically modified foods, first promulgated
in 1992, keeps up with scientific knowledge, the agency is now soliciting
opinions from the public. The agency held three public meetings around the
country late last year.

Why Labeling Interest Now

Although biotech foods have been around a while, the public's interest in
the labeling of genetically modified foods has bloomed because of recent
events. As more products are expected to reach the market in the coming
years, people are worried about their safety.

Environmentalists and activists recently became concerned about a
laboratory-based study indicating that monarch butterflies might be harmed
by eating pollen from corn with the Bt gene. Further investigations are
under way.

In January, 130 nations, including the United States, adopted an agreement
in Montreal to label genetically engineered agricultural commodities. Before
the treaty can go into effect it must be ratified by 50 countries, a process
that could take two to three years.

Europe has also been resisting genetically modified crops. Since 1998, the
European Union has ceased importing genetically modified corn from the
United States, costing the United States $200 million a year in exports.

Companies are beginning to bow to consumer pressures. Heinz and Gerber
announced they would not used genetically modified material in their baby
food. Last month Frito-Lay announced it was asking growers not to use
genetically modified crops.

Now comes the USDA's rules on organic foods. Although such labeling would
give consumers a choice, Consumers Union's Halloran feels the policy does
not go far enough because organic foods are such a small part of the market.

The biotechnology industry would not support the proposed organic labeling.
BIO's Giddings says there is no need to segregate genetically modified
products since they are no different than plants created by thousands of
years of human selection.

Organic farmers disagree. "Organic farmers are proud to put the organic
label on their products," says Paulette Satur, owner of an organic farm on
Long Island bearing her name, and wife of Lutece chef and co-owner Eberhard
Muller, who uses products from the farm in the famed New York restaurant.
"Why aren't the biotech companies as proud to put a genetically modified
label on their products?"

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