Why It's Hard To Know If Your Food Is GMO

Nov 23, 2017

Jean Halloran is director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. That’s the policy and lobbying arm of Consumer Reports magazine — the people who test EVERYTHING, then tell you about it. Halloran’s been looking at GMOs with a critical eye, and Kara Holsopple spoke with her recently about them.

Kara Holsopple: How much of what’s sold to consumers in the produce aisle is actually GMO?

Jean Halloran: That’s actually a tougher question than you might think. The main crops that are genetically engineered in the United States are corn, soy, canola and sugar beets. In terms of the produce aisle, we’re a little unsure of how much is there because we don’t have mandatory labeling. We do know that there have been some kinds of produce that have gone through a FDA safety review. So there’s some sweet corn, there’s some zucchini, there’s some potatoes. And just now they’re introducing a variety of apple called  Arctic®apples  whose main characteristic is that it doesn’t go brown when you cut it open. 

KH: And from my understanding, the genetic modification is that it silences the gene that makes apple’s turn brown. I think we’ve heard a lot more about adding genetic code from other organisms to genetically modify them. Is it different from that?

JH: Yes and No. The vast bulk of the products that have been modified so far have been modified with added genes to tolerate glyphosate – better known as Roundup, an herbicide – so that they can spray the field and the crop doesn’t die, but the weeds do. Although, increasingly, the weeds are evolving resistance so that it’s not working very well anymore. Now these new techniques for that potato and the arctic apple are what they call a gene silencing technique. They call it, sometimes, gene editing where you may not necessarily introduce genetic material from some other plant or bacteria or you know insect or something. But, in fact, the risks are the same because once you start tinkering with the genetic code there can be unexpected effects. Things can happen not just at the part of the code that you want to change, but elsewhere in the genome. And genomes are so complex.

KH: So when a GMO is proposed by a company, how do we know it’s safe to eat? What’s the oversight?

JH: Well that’s one of our biggest concerns because in the U.S., at this point, we only have a system for voluntary safety consultations. But the companies will say that everything on the market has actually gone through a voluntary consultation. There’s one exception to that though which is something now on the market I don’t know if you’ve seen them talking about the impossible burger?

KH: I’ve eaten one! OK, tell me about it now.

JH: Well, it contains genetically engineered blood which has not gone through a FDA safety review. It’s basically a veggie burger, but the thing that makes people not so excited about veggie burgers sometimes is that they don’t really taste like meat burgers. So to try to make it more like a meat burger these folks have genetically engineered a yeast to produce the equivalent of hemoglobin — the red stuff that makes blood-red. Now originally they went to FDA and said, will you please evaluate this? And FDA wrote back and said, the data that you provided so far is not sufficient to make a safety assessment. Please provide us with actual safety testing.’ Because their original assessment just kind of argued from theory. You know, this should be safe because basically people have eaten hemoglobin for a long time and this is hemoglobin. So they withdrew their application for review and then just started marketing the burger. And this is perfectly legal.


Jean Halloran keeps and eye on policy related to GMOs for Consumers Union.
Credit Consumers Union

KH: FDA is the Food and Drug Administration. What about the USDA?

JH: USDA doesn’t have jurisdiction over the safety of plant foods. And this is a food additive being added to a plant food. So it’s not in USDA’s jurisdiction. They just assure the safety of meat and poultry that’s being slaughtered. USDA does have a responsibility to make sure that any new genetically engineered plant is not a plant pest — in other words likely to turn into weed. But it’s a kind of limited remit that it has.

KH: There was a big GMO labeling debate last year in Vermont. Where do things lie now? How to consumers know if the foods that they’re eating have GMO ingredients or have been genetically modified in some way?

JH: You can’t know, unfortunately. Vermont passed a labeling law that was supposed to go into effect a year ago. And some companies actually started labeling their products. We didn’t think this was such a radical idea, but the biotech and food marketing lobbies were extremely opposed to this. And they got Congress to pass a law that preempted all states from ever requiring labeling of genetically engineered food. What they did require [was] a federal system of disclosure, and that can be accomplished in any number of ways. You could label the product or you could also use this thing called a QR code and you can use your smart phone to scan it. We thought that was not an acceptable solution because among older people, and among low-income people, and among rural people — smartphones are, in some cases, not even owned by a majority of people out there. That hasn’t gone into effect yet; it’s supposed to go into effect in another year or so.

KH: Does the average consumer know enough about GMOs in your experience? And is the information that’s out there that people can read about GMOs trustworthy?

JH: You can read plenty of things on the Internet, some of which make genetic engineering sound like the cure for baldness, and other stuff that makes it sound like it’s the cause of every known disease. There’s plenty of misleading information. There’s also reliable information. Consumer Reports has written a lot of articles about it and we’re very careful about what we say. We have a fact checking department and they’re very tough on us! But do consumers know enough to make decisions? The average consumer clearly doesn’t know very much about genetic engineering. It’s new science; it’s at the cutting edge. They probably barely remember high school biology where you learned what genes were and chromosomes and things. But I think most people have a basic idea that genes are what make you what you are. I think a lot of people just kind of have a conservative view when it comes to new technology. I know there are other people who are very happy to try out every new technological invention. So we think people should have a choice.

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