>Food shock: what the labels don’t tell you
(This article is adapted from the June 2011 issue of Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine.)
You could be eating meat and drinking milk from cloned or genetically modified animals without knowing it. The reason: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require labeling on most products that contain genetically engineered plant materials, or on meat and milk from cloned animals. So there’s no way for consumers to tell.
The agency claims that such labeling could confuse consumers and turn them away from products that currently are deemed safe.
The genetic engineering issue has caused problems with imports and exports because the U.S. government stands virtually alone in its opposition to such labeling. Many importing countries require it and labeling is authorized by international guidelines.
Where the modified genes are
Genetically modified versions of corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton are widely sold in the U.S. The grains make their way into lots of stuff—an estimated 60 to 70 percent of processed food sold has genetically modified ingredients.
Last fall, AquaBounty Technologies petitioned the FDA for approval to sell salmon that is genetically engineered to grow at twice the normal rate. If approved, it would be the first genetically engineered animal to enter the U.S. food supply.
Along with other consumer and environmental organizations, Consumers Union (CU), the nonprofit publisher of this website and Consumer Reports, testified against the AquaBounty petition. CU’s testimony cited concerns that the fish could trigger or worsen allergic reactions, and also noted the overall lack of solid safety data.
The labeling of genetically modified fish also came under debate. CU noted that the FDA should require labeling based, in part, on the fact that the inserted genetic material, which is from the Chinook salmon growth hormone gene, and the resulting products are man-made food ingredients.
In addition, CU pointed out that FDA should require labeling to insure that any unexpected or unintended effects of engineering this salmon come to FDA attention. The decision whether to approve the salmon is on hold while the FDA is gathering more information.
What you can do
If you’d prefer to avoid milk and meat from cloned cows and genetically modified plant ingredients, you should buy products labeled “USDA Organic.” According to our Eco-label center, there also are some other reliable labels certifying “no genetic engineering.” They include: the Food Alliance (FA) label; the Maine Quality Trademark Seal.
Unlike the labels above, a label claim, such as “GMO-free,” is not independently verifiable or meaningful, according to our Eco-label center.