New laboratory tests have found that veggie burgers and meat-free corn dogs made by natural foods brand Morningstar Farms contain genetically modified soy and the controversial genetically altered feed corn, StarLink, that has not been approved for human consumption.
The tests, commissioned by the activist group Greenpeace, highlight the difficulty that even natural foods companies are having in assuring customers that their products do not contain genetically modified ingredients.
Kellogg Co., which bought Morningstar's parent company, Worthington Foods, in late 1999, had told customers in a string of letters and e-mails about its conversion to a soy protein that is not produced through biotechnology. Its products were not labeled as GMO-free, however.
Kellogg's own tests confirmed recently that the soy protein it received from its suppliers was genetically altered.
"This was an isolated incident," said Chris Ervin, a Kellogg spokeswoman. "It was a case of a supplier not providing ingredients to our specifications."
Kellogg executives have yet to decide whether to recall any of the products. But they have contacted the Food and Drug Administration, which recalled hundreds of StarLink-tainted products last year and are submitting products to an independent laboratory to be tested for the controversial corn.
FDA officials say they have insufficient information to decide whether to recall the products or investigate Kellogg's claims.
One of the tests, conducted by Fairfield, Iowa-based Genetic ID, indicated that 1% or less of the corn in Morningstar's corn dogs is of the StarLink variety, which was approved in animal feed but never for humans for fear that the slow-digesting proteins might cause allergic reactions.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said less than 1% of the corn set to be sold to farmers this spring contained StarLink corn seed, and the government has offered to buy that seed to keep it off the market.
Industry analysts say they don't think Kellogg is trying to mislead customers, but is simply struggling along with most other food companies to police its supply chain.
"A lot of the industry would like to go GMO-free and use some kind of insignia on their label, but today they don't have complete assurance down the [supply] chain," said Grant Ferrier, editor of San Diego-based Nutrition Business Journal.
Still, a Greenpeace official questioned how vigilant Kellogg has been in conducting testing or pressuring its suppliers to screen out genetically modified ingredients.
In another report Greenpeace commissioned from RHM Technologies in Britain, a biochemist estimated that 50% of the soy in the sample of Morningstar Harvest Burgers was of the Roundup Ready variety, a genetically modified soybean that is resistant to a popular weed killer.
"It's very hard to explain 50% of the soy [in a product] being genetically engineered as just a slip up," said Charles Margulis, who heads Greenpeace's genetic engineering campaign. "This seems to be a company that just doesn't care."
Executives of the nation's largest natural foods chain say they can attest to the difficulties of trying to be GMO-free.
More than a year after claiming it was going to ban GMOs from its house-brand products, Whole Foods Market Inc. still hasn't reformulated all of its products including its sodas and sandwich cookies and nutrition bars, said Denis Ring, who oversees manufacturing of its 365-brand product line.
"I don't think anyone is trying to mislead consumers," Ring says. "I just think the system right now isn't very conducive to segregation [of these products]."