Fear Factor: The Truth About Genetically Modified Foods

Consumers don’t always know whether their food or beverage contains genetically modified ingredients, and hundreds of groups are calling for mandatory labels. However, almost all major medical groups and independent scientists say GMO labels aren’t necessary.

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Next to the nutrition information label that’s on all packaged foods that are in your grocery store, you might find a new label—“non-GMO”—which typically is accompanied by an illustration of a butterfly on a leaf.

The voluntary label is at the heart of a nationwide battle over what it means for a food to contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and whether companies should be required to tell consumers about the technology that’s used to produce their food.

Hundreds of pro-labeling environmental groups, organic-food manufacturers and activist organizations, such as Center for Food Safety, Greenpeace and National Organic Coalition, focus on the potential health risks of GMOs and argue for transparency in the food industry.

In the past 5 years, the Non-GMO Project, which is an 11-year-old organization that verifies beverages and foods that contain no more than 0.9 percent GMOs, verified almost 35,000 products.

Some major grocery stores and national restaurant chains are jumping on board, too. Chipotle eliminated most GMOs from its menu in 2015, and Whole Foods committed to label all genetically modified foods that are on its shelves by 2018.

In July 2016, Vermont will become the first state to require the labeling of foods that contain GMOs. Connecticut and Maine approved similar legislation, but those laws will go into effect only if adjoining states make the same move. Labeling ballot initiatives failed in California (2012), Washington (2013), Colorado (2014) and Oregon (2014). During the 2015 legislative session alone, state governments considered at least 100 GMO-related bills, according to National Conference of State Legislatures.

As of mid-2015, 64 countries had mandatory labeling laws for GMOs.

Still, many independent scientists and almost all major medical groups, which include American Medical Association, British Royal Society and World Health Organization (WHO), say mandatory GMO labeling isn’t necessary. Thousands of studies and safety assessments over the past 20 years failed to show any negative health or nutritional effects from eating genetically modified foods. One study that was published in 2014 included data on at least 100 billion animals and found no detrimental health effects after the introduction of genetically modified feed.

The House of Representatives approved a bill in July 2015 that would prevent states from making GMO-labeling laws and mandate that GMO labeling would remain voluntary for food manufacturers. The bill is called the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” but labeling proponents dub it the “Denying Americans the Right To Know Act” or DARK. They say consumers have the “right to know” what’s in their beverages and foods. The Senate held a hearing to discuss potential GMO laws in October 2015, but no timeline exists for any votes.

The debate raises important questions about how GMO labeling laws might affect consumers. Would labeling create easier, more transparent access to healthful foods? Would costs increase? Consensus on these questions remains distant. For now, the issue remains mired in politics and money, while lobbying efforts on both sides spin the issue in opposite directions. The agriculture and food industries emphasize the safety of GMOs and spent $52 million in the first half of 2015 to get that message across, according to federal lobby and disclosure forms. The organic-food industry supports labeling efforts and spent $2.5 million in the first half of 2015 to get its point across, according to federal lobby and disclosure forms.

HEALTH FEARS. Genetic engineering, or modification, manipulates an organism’s DNA, usually by adding genes. Scientists have used genetic modification on plants for decades. At least 90 percent of corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets that are grown in the United States now are modified genetically. Because processed foods contain ingredients that are derived from genetically modified crops—including corn oil, soy lecithin and soy proteins—75 percent of supermarket products contain GMOs, according to trade group Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

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