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Good Eats: Fuel for Better Living

Genetically Modified Mystery Meals, Part 1

By Naomi Mendelsohn



"This is a new technology that is relatively untested and quite radical. It's being rushed to market with little or no safety testing and no labeling."



Not too long ago, I was browsing in my local, worker-owned, eco-friendly, bring-your-own-bag independent supermarket when I stumbled into the aisle of frozen foods. Expecting to see the usual high-fat, preservative-laden frozen TV dinners, I was amazed by the rows of healthy hope unleashed before my eyes. I almost yielded to this gourmet temptation, but after checking my wallet, I decided to go for my usual: soy-ful, vegetarian Boca Burgers.

Just as I reached my arm into the freezer to negotiate between the "Hint of Garlic" and "Original" flavors, I was stopped, dead in my tracks, by a finger aimed like a trigger and a voice pointed at me.

"See folks, that poor woman thinks she's buying healthy veggie burgers."

Who me? I thought with a coy smile. I know these are healthy. As much as I miss the meat-ful days of decades past, I have come to settle for veggie burgers topped with high-calorie, preservative-happy ketchup and a hunk of dairy-lovin' cheddar cheese.

The woman clucked her finger, shook her headful of graying curls, encouraged her band of eager followers to do the same and said:

"What she doesn't know is that Boca Burgers and many other brands of so-called healthy veggie burgers are chock full of genetically modified soybeans."

A chorus of wide-eyed gasps echoed around me. I felt like I had just been caught red-handed in the cookie jar. For a split second I thought about dropping the burgers and running. But I took another second to evaluate the scene. Here I was buying vegetarian soy patties, not exactly an unpolitically correct choice, in a progressive supermarket in the heart of Berkeley, California. I wasn’t exactly the face of evil corporate America, was I?

No, but somehow I had become an unwitting victim in the relentless debate over Frankenfoods.

GM foods 101

Though the debate over genetically modified(GM) foods is relatively new, the products themselves have been sitting on grocery shelves for almost a decade. Open any cabinet in your home or office, and you'll probably find a product with an ingredient that has been genetically modified.

According to a Consumer Reports article from last September, many food items have been found to contain GM ingredients including, but not limited to: Frito-Lay Fritos, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Heinz Baby Cereal, Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, Snackwell's Granola Bars, Slim Fast, Alpo Dry Pet Food and Boca Burgers. You get the drift. These ingredients are everywhere. The question is do we need to be concerned, and if so, how much?

Not so fast. This debate is not that simple. There are several levels of concern from the most obvious — what are the health risks of eating these foods — to the less obvious — is it ethical to create a transgenic species such as a strawberry implanted with a fish gene? People are quickly choosing sides.

Frankenfood lovers

Proponents of GM foods say there's nothing to worry about when it comes to food safety. Most of the foods on supermarket shelves have been approved by various federal regulatory agencies including the FDA and the USDA.

"There's no evidence of harm from consuming genetically modified foods," says Dave Schmidt, Senior Vice President of the International Food Information Council(IFIC), a non-profit organization, which, according to their website, is supported by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. "While some people may be philosophically opposed, there's nothing to be afraid of from a health standpoint."

Schmidt explains that numerous studies have been conducted on biotech foods and they have been proven just as safe as any other foods on the shelves.

"From a scientific standpoint, there have been all sorts of tests done for toxicology, affect on nutritional content and, literally, no harm has been claimed," says Schmidt. "Critics might say that something could happen in the future, but even they aren't saying that something has happened now."

Take that tech out of my tomato

But Schmidt's words don't make anti-GM foods activists, like Ronnie Cummins, feel any better about "frankenfoods."

"This is a new technology that is relatively untested and quite radical," says Cummins, the National Director of the Organic Consumers Association. "It's being rushed to market with little or no safety testing and no labeling."

Schmidt and Cummins disagree on a key point. For Schmidt, the existing government regulations which treat GM foods with the same standards as "natural" foods is just fine. Cummins, on the other hand views these foods like engineered products; they might grow on plants and trees, but they have also been tampered with in a laboratory.

Cummins cites several incidents and studies showing the hazards of genetically modified foods. One incident in 1988 involved a batch of the over-the-counter dietary supplement L-Tryptophan manufactured by the Japanese pharmaceutical company, Showa Denko. The batch, which had been modified with genetically engineered bacteria, had been thought to cause a rare blood disorder resulting in the deaths of 37 people and injuries to 5000 others. Showa Denko has already paid out over $2 billion dollars to the victims.

"It's a smoking gun," says Cummins. "But a smoking gun that the U.S. government and the FDA won't halt."

Cummins cites various other studies including a Canadian one showing that rats who were fed bovine growth hormones developed early warning signs of cancer, and the more well-known study showing that some monarch butterflies, who were fed significant amounts of genetically modified corn, died.

Though the scientific community has not fully embraced these studies and finds fault with the data gathering method, Cummins believes that these studies prove that GM foods need to go through more rigorous testing before they can be put on the market.

"The public ends up being human guinea pigs," says Cummins. "It's a biological time bomb set to explode."

Cummins and his organization are calling for a moratorium on biotech foods until they can be proven safe for human health and the environment.

"Until, they prove that these products are safe using the same protocols that they use for drugs, these things need to be pulled off the market."

With so much contradictory information, it's no surprise that many consumers are at a loss for what to do. Next week we'll take a closer look at the various issues that currently face consumers.

Naomi Mendelsohn is a content editor at savvyHEALTH.com.


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