US shoppers lack choice - Seeds of Doubt part 5 (11/6/2004)

Another great article from this US daily.

The whole series of articles making up The Sacramento Bee's remarkable SEEDS OF DOUBT project, complete with photos, interactive graphics and audio, plus ancillary information, can be seen at http://www.sacbee.com/biotech.

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Part Five: Grocery quandary
For U.S.shoppers, a lack of labels limits choice on biotech products
By Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writer
Sacramento Bee, June 10, 2004 -- Last of five parts

Grocery shopping was going smoothly until Lori Brennan stopped for soy milk.

Studying the shelves at a natural foods market in Grass Valley this spring, Brennan found her options mind-boggling. Some of the drinks carried the organic seal, some did not. All but one new variety were sweetened. A brand on sale caught Brennan's interest, but it bothered her that the package said nothing about whether the soy was genetically modified.

Brennan, a 57-year-old registered nurse with a zeal for eating healthfully, sighed. “It's not easy to be a consumer,” she said.

Not long afterward, in the aisle of a London grocery store, Sylvia Slark picked up a plastic container of seedless grapes and dropped it in a basket. A label on the container clearly read: “Naturally contains no GM products.”

“I'm fussy about what I eat,” said Slark, an office manager for a nightclub. “Choice is important to me.”

A decade since the debut of gene-spliced food, biotechnology is a dominant presence in world agriculture. But the distribution of biotech foods is uneven. Dancing around deeply divided opinions over the technology's health and environmental safety, and over its social and economic effects, the global food industry approaches genetic engineering with a double standard.

In much of Europe and parts of Asia, where consumer mistrust is greatest and labeling is required, food manufacturers take pains to eliminate genetically engineered ingredients as much as possible.

In the United States, a land of seemingly infinite grocery choices, food purveyors rarely make distinctions between what's genetically engineered and what's not. People who want to avoid biotech foods are left trying to sort it out on their own.

“I'd like to...be able to make an informed decision; at this point, I can't,” said Jeff Dawson, curator of gardens at Copia, a museum and cultural center in Napa that celebrates food and wine. “I feel some personal freedom's been taken away from me.”

No labels required The U.S. government maintains that the act of gene splicing doesn't significantly change a food. As long as an engineered food is nutritionally the same as its conventionally grown version - and has undergone a company analysis to rule out the presence of allergens - the government says labels aren't necessary.

Rejecting mandatory labeling sets the United States apart from most of the world's industrial countries.

More than 40 countries have labeling requirements, according to Colin Carter, a University of California, Davis, agricultural economist. In addition to the 25 countries of the European Union, they range from Australia to South Africa, Taiwan to Thailand - and even China, which spends the most public money of any country on biotech crop research.

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A profit from picky consumers

In Japanese soybean buyers' objections to biotech soy, Connell Brothers in San Francisco saw an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Connell Brothers is the international trading division of Wilbur Ellis, one of the largest distributors of agricultural products in the United States. Company staff in Japan suggested finding growers who would plant conventional soybeans and make special efforts to keep those beans separate from engineered beans. From that idea, a niche market was carved.

Today, Connell Brothers specializes in soybeans known as “identity-preserved non-GMO.” By keeping a detailed record of their beans' origin and transport, the company promises buyers 99 percent non-biotech purity. In turn, their beans fetch a higher price. The premium fluctuates, running in the range of 20 percent to 40 percent per bushel, according to Kevin Hack, Connell Brothers corporate marketing manager for specialty grains.

A few of the shipments go to Europe, Hack said, but the majority are bound for Japan for use in miso, tofu, fish cakes and baby food.

Japanese people's wary reaction to genetically engineered food stems in part from a strong sense that what they eat reflects who they are. “Japanese food culture is our identity,” said Ryoko Shimizi, who studies biotech issues for the Seikatsu Club Consumers' Cooperative Union in Tokyo. “So food is not just nutrition.”

Shimizu said co-op members, who number 250,000, worry about the safety of biotech foods over the long term. “We didn't know the risk of pesticides or herbicides (right away), but we know now,” she said.

That attitude has induced a major change in the buying habits of Japanese tofu makers, said Kim Nill, technical issues director of the American Soybean Association. They've moved “upscale” - buying identity-preserved non-GMO soy or even more expensive organic soy. That shift affects not only Connell Brothers but the whole U.S. soybean industry.

“The real impact for my members,” said Nill cheerfully. “They make more profit.”

- Edie Lau

Britain, for one, has made consumer information a priority when it comes to biotech products.

“The government is neither pro nor anti,” said Sharima Rasanayagam, science and technology consul in the British Consulate in San Francisco. “We want decisions made on sound science; we want to protect the environment as much as possible; and we want to protect consumer choice.”

Some of the same companies that resist mandatory labeling here, arguing that it's costly and unnecessary to segregate crops, provide their overseas customers with non-engineered products.

Sarah Delea, a spokeswoman for Kraft Foods Inc., explained it this way: “In Europe, the regulations are evolving, and consumer acceptance of biotechnology remains lower than, say, in the United States. Therefore, in Europe, we do not use biotech ingredients. In the United States, the regulatory system has reviewed and assessed and approved the safety of biotech ingredients, and consumer interest in it remains stable.”

Even the makers of genetically engineered organisms play both sides of the fence. DuPont, a leading developer of biotech crops, is part-owner of a non-engineered soy business called Solae.

The reason is simple, said Paul Tebo, corporate vice president of safety, health and environment at DuPont: “Where there's a market demand for products, we produce the products.”

It may make perfect business sense, but Corey Nicholl finds it offensive. A stocker at a natural foods grocery in Berkeley who this past year has researched genetic modification and the food industry, Nicholl said the attitude seems to be, “Americans will eat anything, right? (So) they sell their trash here.”

British food and drink makers studiously avoid the products of genetic engineering, to the best of their ability. “The UK food and drink manufacturing industry does not (use) GM ingredients for its products, as they would not sell,” said Kate Snowden, a spokeswoman for the British Food and Drink Federation.

By contrast, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that 70 to 75 percent of processed foods sold in the United States may contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The reason is not that so many sources of food are genetically engineered. So far, no engineered animals are sold as meat, and very few commercial crop types are bioengineered. Just four commodities dominate the biotech farmscape - corn, soybeans, canola and cotton - but they are valuable commodities broadly used in countless products. Corn and soy are ubiquitous in processed foods.

They show up on ingredient labels as high-fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup solids. Soy protein isolate. Soy lecithin. Corn oil. Soybean oil. Or generically, “vegetable oil.” There's also canola oil and cottonseed oil.

Common but invisible, these ingredients are produced by an expanding acreage of crops with engineered DNA that, in most instances, enables the plants to produce their own insecticide or withstand certain herbicides.

Because everyone eats, the shift affects everyone. Yet the revolution has happened largely unnoticed by the American public. Here, ignorance about genetic engineering in food is the norm.

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Household term: GMO

Filling the information void in her community was what Els Cooperrider had in mind when she dreamed up a ballot initiative to outlaw growing genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County.

To her amazement, the measure passed in March, making Mendocino the nation's first community to ban genetically modified organisms - GMOs.

“I wasn't thinking we could pass such a thing. I was just thinking about educating the public,” said Cooperrider, the snowy-haired matriarch of a family-owned .organic-foods restaurant and brew pub in Ukiah.

A former biology researcher who has watched the use of DNA splicing spread since its genesis in the 1970s, Cooperrider mistrusts the technology.

“You take a piece of DNA and forcibly insert it,” she said, “you're going to mess something up.”

Early on, people were mystified by the “GMO Free Mendocino” signs posted along roadsides and in shop windows. Campaign volunteer Adam Gaska remembers being asked, “What the hell is a guh-MOE?”

Gaska sagged. If residents of Mendocino, which prides itself on being socially progressive, don't know the ABCs of food biotechnology, he thought, what about the rest of America?

Over the next three months, Gaska and other volunteers by the scores spread out across the lush hills and valleys of the community, talking to their neighbors, hoping to tap the independent spirit that draws people to the North Coast. The fight was hot. The industry-supported opposition outspent proponents of the ban 5-to-1. Radio airwaves overflowed with advertisements. By the end, the combined letters G-M-O had become a household term. And, for 56 percent of voters, an unwelcome concept.

- Edie Lau

Little knowledge

A survey in January commissioned by the International Food Information Council - a public relations arm of the food, beverage and agriculture industry - found that 63 percent of adults had heard or read little to nothing about food biotechnology.

Talk to shoppers outside the Natomas Raley's supermarket and you'll hear a similar refrain.

Among a handful of people interviewed there by The Bee this spring, half said they knew nothing about food biotechnology, genetic engineering, genetically modified organisms or “Frankenfood,” the nickname popular among opponents.

Debra Hilton, a 27-year-old living in Rio Linda, said working three jobs leaves her too busy to pay attention to such things.

“They should have to label it,” said Angie Dickson, a 29-year-old, who at the time was an expectant mother on leave from her job at an insurance office. Dickson said she habitually reads the fine print on packaging to avoid hydrogenated oils and other unhealthy ingredients.

The absence of labels for bioengineered ingredients and low consumer awareness are inter.twined. Without labels, consumers tend not to know about the issue, so they are unlikely to press for labeling.

Efficiency lost

The standard food and biotechnology industry argument against labeling is that segregating biotech from conventional crops is too expensive. But segregation is happening anyway, driven by overseas regulations and the demands of foreign buyers.

The system for producing products in this new, awkwardly named category of “identity-preserved non-GMO” does cost some money. But it's nominal in the grand scheme of things, according to David Bullock, an associate professor specializing in agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.

Bullock said the greatest expense - and one that's hard to quantify - comes from lost efficiency. Now there are two streams of soy products and two streams of corn products where once there was one of each. All of a sudden, storage containers, whether silos, grain elevators or the holds of ships, are too big.

“The infrastructure is not right,” Bullock said. But, he added, “It's not an economic disaster.”

The real barrier to labeling biotech crops in the United States may be more formidable than upfront cost: fear. The food industry fears that mandatory labels would act as scarlet letters, driving away fearful shoppers.

Bugles are a case in point.

The crunchy, salty snack shaped like a horn is made from corn by General Mills. In the United States, at least some of the corn likely is bioengineered. In Europe, the company pays extra to be sure the corn is not genetically modified, so the Bugles don't have to be labeled.

Ron Olson, General Mills vice president for grain operations, said he doesn't know what would happen if Bugles were labeled “contains GM” in the United States. Nor does he care to find out.

“At this point in time,” he said, “we're not willing to risk the brand.”

Shelf sleuths On Gilman Street in Berkeley, a health-food store so small it doesn't have a parking lot is plotting a revolt against what its employees consider the force-feeding of genetically engineered foods in America.

It began when the telephone rang at Berkeley Natural Grocery shortly before Christmas 2002. The caller was a woman who regularly buys nutritional supplements, including soy lecithin, a form of fat believed to improve brain health. In Los Angeles, she'd seen a brand of lecithin labeled “non-GMO.” Couldn't the Berkeley store carry something similar?

Elizabeth Donsky got right on it. A vegan with a degree in holistic health from San Francisco State University, Donsky is in charge of vitamin sales. She shared the customer's concerns.

Donsky contacted suppliers. Sure enough, most of the lecithin was engineered.

Within a week, she found a lecithin without modified genes. It even cost less than some of the other brands.

The customer's request was satisfied, but now Donsky wasn't. Neither were some of her co-workers. They approached the owner. “We want to look into what in the store has GMOs, and we'd like them to be gone,” they said. “Gone or labeled.”

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Related Story Labeling debate The food industry generally balks at labeling genetically modified foods in the United States, saying the logistics would be a nightmare. But a model already exists, in those little labels you find stubbornly attached to your fruits and vegetables.

The Produce Electronic Identification Board years ago established a code for biotech produce, believing at the time they would bring a higher price.

The code is part of a system known as PLU, for “price look-up.” Shoppers encounter the PLU every time they try to peel off those tiny stickers affixed to individual apples or tomatoes. The PLU is meant to help checkout clerks charge the correct price. Each type of produce is assigned a 4-digit number.

Organic versions of the same fruit or vegetable start with the numeral 9. And, under the system set up by the produce board, biotech versions can be preceded by the numeral 8. So a conventional banana is coded 4011, an organic banana 94011 and an engineered banana would be 84011. Theoretically.

In practice, no produce bears the coding for genetic engineering. For one thing, very little fresh commercial produce is genetically engineered right now. For another, use of the code is entirely voluntary.

“It isn't a matter of, do we want to tell you, or do people want to know,” said Dick Spezzano, who was chairman of the Produce Electronic Identification Board when the coding for genetic engineering was adopted in the mid-1990s. “(It's meant for) those who want to market differently. They could use the regular … code. They're not obligated.”

In fact, Spezzano said Hawaiian papayas that have been genetically modified to resist a particular viral disease are coded just like conventional papayas. They're sold for the same price, so vendors have no incentive to make a distinction.


The issue was a natural for Berkeley, where food and politics go together like carrots and peas. Store founder and President Bob Gerner agreed to take action. He allowed three employees - Donsky, stocker Corey Nicholl and Roxanne Seraphin, a cashier - to each spend two hours a week on the project.

They became biotech sleuths, examining the shelves item by item, reading packaging for “hot” ingredients: corn, canola, soy or cottonseed oil, mostly, plus dairy products - which they reasoned could have come from cows treated with genetically engineered growth hormone.

A crunchy corn cereal made with canola and/or sunflower oil? Put it on the list. Chocolate with a touch of soy lecithin emulsifier to keep ingredients from separating? Check it out, too.

The job took months. Finally, arms aching from clutching clipboards, the team took to the computer. They logged 720 products onto a spreadsheet and began searching for contact information on the 300 companies that made the products.

Next, the team wrote to 6,000 health food stores and cooperatives nationwide, asking if they would like to sign letters to the manufacturers asking them to avoid biotech ingredients. By April, 161 stores were signed on and the letters went out.

“The main objective is to get information to the consumer,” Nicholl said, “so that they can make a real choice.”

Not so simple Larger stores are struggling with the pro- or no-biotech issue, too. Coming under pressure from environmental and organic advocacy groups, Trader Joe's, for example, announced in March 2003 that all store-brand products would be made with non-engineered ingredients.

In doing so, the popular chain followed a trend set five years earlier in Britain. A medium-sized grocery chain, Iceland, was the first to announce it would not use engineered ingredients in its brand. By 1999, other supermarkets in Britain and elsewhere in Europe followed. Grocery companies even eliminated meat and dairy that came from animals raised on bioengineered feed.

But ousting genetically engineered ingredients completely is not as simple as just saying no - in the United Kingdom or the United States or anywhere else.

Randy Erickson learned that lesson in a most frustrating way.

Erickson is vice president of manufacturing and innovation at Clif Bar, a private Berkeley company founded by his brother, Gary. When he joined the energy bar maker in 1999, Erickson pressed for avoiding biotech ingredients. To him, it was not a matter of doubting the safety of the technology as much as rejecting the system that produces bioengineered products.

“I think it's a lie that's been perpetrated on us by big companies for the wrong reason,” Erickson said. “I'm not one that believes, 'Oh, Frankenfood' and all this other stuff.... (But) we're not feeding one person more because of this (technology). No lives have been saved. ... We've got it whether we want it or not, and we were never given the choice.”

Trying to wrest back that choice, he arranged for Clif Bar to buy certified non-engineered soybean ingredients. The company printed on its packages that Clif Bars contained no GM soy. Erickson and crew ordered DNA testing of the bars to verify the claim.

Results came in by e-mail and fax. Negative. Negative. Negative. Positive. Uh-oh.

“Damn low levels,” Erickson said. “But damn low levels ain't none.”

Where did it come from? Was somebody, the staff wondered suspiciously, slipping in ingredients they hadn't asked for? Or had they neglected to specify “GM-free” for an ingredient?

Clif Bar sent out individual ingredients for testing, trying to pinpoint the problem. They all came back negative. Was the science of testing a mess? After all, no uniform standards exist for biotech analysis. Or did the sample that tested positive happen to be made with a stray modified soybean?

About that time, Clif Bar got publicly dinged.

The Wall Street Journal hired a lab to test an assortment of foods claiming to be “GM-free.” It reported in 2001 that many of those foods weren't free of biotech ingredients, Clif Bar among them.

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Changing farm life

On the outskirts of Dixon, a 33-year-old farmer named Erik Freese grows alfalfa, sunflowers, wheat, a type of hay called Sudan grass, beans and corn. A graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a degree in agriculture management and economics, Freese began in 2001 to experiment with biotech corn.

He started with 70 acres, planting in an area where neighboring farms grow mostly tomatoes. Today, Freese is up to 1,000 acres a year of herbicide-resistant corn. He sells it as cattle feed. And he loves it.

Because he can kill weeds using the herbicide Roundup - which the biotech corn is created to withstand - Freese doesn't need to weed by plowing. That means he runs fossil-fuel burning, dust-raising farm machinery less often, and saves at least $20,000 a year in labor expenses.

He does pay more for seeds - the patented products cost about 10 percent more than conventional varieties. But bottom line, biotech corn saves Freese money.

The benefits are not merely financial.

“I am a fifth-generation farmer, and if this Roundup Ready corn wasn't available, I would be hard-pressed to stay in this industry,” said Freese, who has one child and another on the way. “I don't want to be the one that couldn't maintain this legacy.”

As important, Freese has more time now for his family. He has the luxury of taking his 3-year-old son to preschool in the morning, or picking him up in the afternoon. He can be home in time to eat dinner with the family.

“I have the opportunity to be a husband and a dad and all that good stuff that goes along with life, other than being married to my job,” he said.

- Edie Lau


Anxious that the company not be seen as deceptive, Erickson faxed the Journal documents showing how doggedly Clif Bar had tried to eliminate the engineered ingredients. The company could even cite the lot number of the seeds from which its soy was grown.

Then, Clif Bar removed the claim on its packaging. After spending tens of thousands of dollars in tests, Erickson resigned himself to tolerating low levels of biotech genes.

“We kind of have a limit where if it's under 1 percent, we really don't worry about it,” he said. “I'm still mad that I can't buy perfect GMO-free stuff. Why am I forced to do that? I should be able to get what I want.”

Clif Bar is shifting toward organic ingredients, which have become the refuge of biotech skeptics. By definition, organic foods cannot be produced using genetic engineering. But even they may not be totally “GM-free.”

That's because transgenes - the genetic material biologists insert into engineered organisms - don't stay put. They travel on the wind or hitch rides on insects' feet. They slip out on mis.labeled seeds. Biotech corn kernels or soybeans mix in silos or on shipping containers with conventional corn and soy. The system is full of leaks.

Every day, Frank Spiegelhalter sees how readily DNA roams. Spiegelhalter is executive vice president of Gene.Scan USA Inc., a leading laboratory offering biotech gene testing. Based in Louisiana, GeneScan USA is owned by a German company with labs on every major continent, reflecting the growing demand for analysis of genetic modification.

“There will always be a few GM beans in what is considered conventional or organic,” Spiegelhalter said. “It could be just one GM bean and 10,000 (regular) soybeans, but the product still tests positive.”

And if you wanted to peddle only GM-free products? Spiegelhalter gave a dry chuckle and said, “You would have nothing left to sell, basically.”

Nothing has ever been 100 percent pure in agriculture, according to Val Giddings, a vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a former branch chief for biotech science and policy coordination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There's always, you know, rodent feces, (or) a little bit of grass seed here or there,” he said.

Moreover, with biotech genes, no fail-safe way exists to guarantee their absence. Even if every food were tested, which is neither practical nor affordable, some products of genetic engineering would escape detection. Oils extracted from corn, canola, soybeans and cotton seeds, for instance, contain little to no DNA. Without the genetic material or telltale proteins produced by the engineered genes, a food's relationship with biotechnology is invisible.

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Too early to tell about safety

The first thing most people want to know about genetically engineered foods is, are they safe to eat? The question may be obvious, but the answer isn't.

The U.S. government says there's no evidence that existing biotech food products are any riskier to eat than conventional foods. Skeptics say that lack of evidence isn't proof.

A few scattered studies and incidents over the years have raised alarms. But many scientists have disputed the findings.

In the best-known of the studies, researchers in Scotland fed young rats an experimental potato engineered with a flower gene to make it resist insects and nematodes. The rats ended up with suppressed immune systems and stunted growth. The results were published in 1999 in The Lancet, a respected journal, but the study widely was dismissed by other scientists as incomplete and sloppy.

More recently, a Norwegian scientist investigating illnesses in more than 30 people living near fields of engineered corn in the Philippines found that the people may have had an allergic reaction to the corn's insect-killing toxin. Those preliminary findings were issued in February and have not yet been confirmed.

You might expect the government to settle the score. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not independently test any food - including biotech food - for safety. It relies upon analyses conducted by the companies that make the products. A 2002 report on the process by the U.S. General Accounting Office noted that the FDA could improve its evaluation by randomly verifying the companies' test data.

People in the past worried about the safety of frozen foods and about microwave ovens, worries that time didn't seem to support. On the other hand, it took decades for science and society to recognize the health dangers of some new technologies, such as chemical pesticides and hydrogenated fats. In that context, it may be too soon to tell how genetically engineered foods will play out.

- Edie Lau


A voice for choice

The debate about genetically modified organisms usually is cast in scientific terms. Are engineered foods safe to eat? Will they harm the environment? But science addresses only a sliver of what concerns its critics.

It fell to Andrew Light to deliver that message to scientists last autumn in Mexico City.

An environmental ethicist at New York University, Light was invited to a conference about biotech corn and “gene flow,” the tendency of genes to migrate. Sequestered for two days in a hotel, Light listened as scientist after scientist talked about the world outside - about the taming of corn from the wild, about corn biology, about ways to detect biotech genes.

When it came time for Light to speak, it was as if someone had thrown open a door and invited in a gale wind.

World opinion, said the slender philosopher, seems intractably divided over biotech foods. “If we want to get anywhere in terms of overcoming some of the big divides that exist over this issue, I don't think that the right approach is to say, 'Well, that perspective is not a scientific perspective, so we shouldn't listen to it.' ... If everyone had a scientific perspective, the world would be incredibly boring.”

Light spoke in jest, but the crowd wasn't laughing.

He kept going. People, he said, have fundamentally different beliefs about what's natural and unnatural; no amount of scientific data will change that.

“If people simply don't want to ingest these materials, we ought to respect their autonomy in making that choice,” he said.

Finally, Light concluded, popular resistance to genetically modified foods is not just about biotechnology. Instead, it's “about how people have felt excluded from making decisions....If you don't like that,” he chided, “then fundamentally you don't like the democratic process.”

Luke Anderson could be the embodiment of Light's democratic world. He's a veteran of anti-biotech activity from Europe to Russia, Australia to Mexico.

A Briton living in Northern California, Anderson may be the guy carrying the picket sign, but he's also often in the background giving pep talks, teaching protest strategy, dispensing data.

Anderson has made it his mission to study the social implications of biotechnology. So his mind plunges into the future, where he foresees people looking back on the early 21st century as a pivotal time for biotech.

Our descendants, he imagines, won't dwell on whether today's citizens were too busy to learn about genetic engineering or too distracted to form an educated opinion about whether it's good, bad or indifferent.

“They will say,” Anderson said, “these were the years, these were the decades, when people had the opportunity to make a choice.”

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