Leading Natural Food Brands Test Positive for GE

Web Note: The position of the Organic Consumers Association is
that the so-called Natural Foods industry should shift to 100% certified
organic ingredients in order to guarantee that their products are GE-free
(or at least 99.9% GE free). Meanwhile consumers and farmers must
demand that all GE crops and foods must be taken off the market. More
lawsuits need to be filed so that the perpetrators of Genetic Drift and
Genetic Contamination pay for their pollution, just as chemical polluters
under the law are required to pay for Toxic Trespass.

In This article:

A Hot Trend
When 'GMO-Free' Isn't
Recalling the Corn Dogs
Fourteen Pages of Pledges
Greenpeace Leans On Gerber
'We Still Have Rejects'
Switching Brands

April 5, 2001
Laboratory Tests Belie Promises Of Some 'GMO-Free' Food Labels

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."
How Lab Tested 'Non-GMO' Foods Sent by The Wall Street Journal

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 whole.

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 genetically modified
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

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 said.

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

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 herbicides.

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 label.

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
weigh tons.

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 harvest.

'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 equipment.

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 kernels.

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.

Switching Brands

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

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 creamed corn.

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 patricia.callahan@wsj.com and Scott Kilman at

Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Donate | About Us | Contact Us

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.