Insights by Goldie
Sound Consumer | June 2001
by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist
Q: We're trying to avoid foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but our budget is tight so we can't always buy certified organic. Many products now say "GMO Free" or "No GMOs." Who verifies such claims? Since certified organic does not permit GMOs, why are some organic products labelled "no GMOs"? Can PCC provide signs in the store to help us know what foods might have GMOs or conversely, which foods "probably" do not have them?
A: Many shoppers face this dilemma. I was interviewed recently by a Wall Street Journal writer preparing a story about such labels, questioning their function and accuracy. I said I'm not altogether comfortable with the labels, although I believe most such claims are made in good faith. Most manufacturers and ingredient suppliers have been blindsided by the aggressive onslaught of GMOs in agriculture. Many have been slow to respond to GMO contamination. Certain crops such as Canola and corn easily cross-pollinate via pollen drift and insects, or are contaminated in storage or transfer because of inadequate segregation. Telling suppliers that "no GMO ingredients will be accepted" can not ensure purity. There are numerous companies specializing in sophisticated testing, but that's problematic since sampling techniques are not standardized and vary greatly.
The Wall Street Journal sent several products labeled as "non-GMO" for laboratory testing, using experienced labs that do genetic testing. In the front-page article in April, the Journal reported that many of the products tested "positive" for GMOs. Virtually all the companies involved were shocked and dismayed and many initially refused to accept the tests' accuracies.
Nevertheless, many feel such labels are "a step in the right direction" or "better than nothing." I agree, particularly when dealing with respected companies in the natural foods field. But the difficulties in dealing with GMO pollution are great. Perhaps the WSJ article heightened awareness and manufacturers have tightened their testing methods.
Manufacturers and processors are in a terribly unfair position. It's outrageous they should have to go to such lengths to try to provide customers with what they want. Nor should you and I as consumers have to endure this ridiculous ordeal of "minefield shopping." PCC and other "gatekeepers" should not have to divert energies from our other tasks to investigate and "cross our fingers," while attempting to help you in your quest for foods uncontaminated with GMOs!
If you think, "I never eat soy!" you may not realize that soy by-products are used in more than 70 percent of prepared and processed foods and that 70 percent of all soy has been genetically engineered. Soy also is in the feed for poultry and egg hens, and some other livestock for meat. In addition to traditional soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk, soy is "invisible" in words such as lecithin, vegetable oil, shortening, textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, protein isolate, tamari, miso, and liquid aminos. Soy also is the source of virtually all vitamin E supplements.
Canola oil is from the rapeseed, a type of mustard plant. It was first altered by traditional plant hybridization and some of that seed is still available, organic and non-organic. (see "Ask Goldie!" April 2001); but it's probable that most of the non-organic Canola is genetically altered. Otherwise, Canola has a reputation as a healthful oil.
Corn, if not organic, is now frequently contaminated with GMOs. It is increasingly debatable whether certified organic corn can be kept free from contamination, especially from cross-pollination. Corn in foods may "masquerade" behind labels as fructose, high fructose corn syrup, meal, flour, masa (in tortillas, tamales and such), chips, grits or polenta. It also appears that some genetically altered table or "sweet corn" may be in produce sections or canned, frozen or in mixed products. Corn also is the source of ascorbic acid in vitamin C supplements.
Cotton seed oil from genetically altered plants most likely would be in products containing hydrogenated fats, such as commercial French fries and chips, in common vegetable oil shortenings and some brands of margarines. It also may be in snack foods, breads and pastries — hidden by words such as "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated shortening."
Milk products using rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) are said to be present in 30 percent of dairy foods. The first GMO ingredient ever introduced, Chymogen¨ (a synthetic enzyme form of chymosin, traditionally used in aged cheeses), is now in 60 percent of all hard cheese products, according to industry sources. Cheese companies, however, frequently claim not to know the source of their enzme.
Greenpeace USA is the best source of information on GMO ingredients in supermarket land. Foods are clearly categorized as "Non-GMO," "Phasing Out GMO," and "GMO." Visit the website at www.truefoodnow.org/shoppinglist.html. The list is a work in progress and we're urged by Greenpeace to download its information to contact companies and give feedback.
A search of biotech industry websites and of the USDA's website reveals many more GMO foods will be here within six years. These might include bell peppers, more tomato varieties, wheat and the infamous genetically-altered salmon. Greenpeace lists other foods such as flax, papayas, tomatoes, potatoes, squash and sugar beets as being "approved in the U.S."