Reporting from Chicago — When a team of activists wearing white hazmat suits showed up at a Chicago grocery store to protest the sale of food containing genetically modified ingredients, they picked an unlikely target: Whole Foods Market.
Organic foods, by definition, can't contain genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs. But genetically modified corn, soy and other crops have become such common ingredients in processed foods that even one of the nation's top organic food retailers says it's been unable to avoid stocking some products that contain them.
"No one would guess that there are genetically engineered foods right here in Whole Foods," said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Assn., which organized the protest. The activists dramatically trashed a battery of well-known health food brands outside the store, including Tofutti, Kashi and Boca Burgers.
Though people have been modifying foodstuffs through selective breeding and other methods for centuries, genetically modified crops differ in that the plants grow from seeds in which DNA splicing has been used to place genes from one species into another. In this way, the crop can be made to withstand a weed-killing pesticide, for example, or incorporate a bacterial toxin that can repel pests.
Some consumers are concerned that such changes may pose health risks and say manufacturers should be required to prove GMOs are safe for human consumption before putting them on the market. They also say products containing genetically modified ingredients should be identified for the consumer; the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations that does not require such labeling.
Industry representatives say GMOs are safe and labeling them is unnecessary, citing a 1992 statement from the Food and Drug Administration saying the agency had no reason to believe GMOs "differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way." No mainstream regulatory organization in the U.S. has opposed the introduction of GMOs.
"FDA has the scientific and nutrition expertise to establish food labeling and to assess food safety," said Ab Basu, the Biotechnology Industry Organization's acting executive vice president for food and agriculture. "You can look at the FDA website and see that if the corn is substantially equivalent to corn produced conventionally, there is no reason to label it as being any different."
Critics of the technology say they are concerned not only about possible health risks but also about soil and plant nutrient losses, contamination of non-GMO crops and increased pesticide use.
With an unprecedented number of genetically modified crops being greenlighted by the Obama administration in recent months amid public debate — including ethanol corn, alfalfa and sugar beets under certain conditions — some advocates say the issues may be reaching the awareness of consumers beyond the health-conscious shoppers who frequent Whole Foods.
They cite polls taken by the Pew Center, Consumers Union, Harris Interactive and ABC over the last decade that have consistently found that the vast majority of Americans would like to see genetically modified foods better regulated and labeled.
"If companies say genetic engineering is fine, then OK, let's label it and let the consumers make their own decisions," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "That's what all the free-market supporters say. So let's let the market work properly."
Michael Jacobsen, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which does not oppose GMOs, says many manufacturers see labeling as too risky. "No food company would use GMOs if they had to label them because there is no benefit to the companies," he said. "The term GMO has become a toxic term, and so if a company figures they will lose maybe 2% of their sales, why should they? It's all loss for them."
In fact, a 2006 study for the Pew Initiative for Food and Biotechnology found that only 23% of women (the primary shopping decision makers) thought genetically modified foods were safe.
But knowledge on this topic also remains low. The same Pew study found that only 26% of American consumers believed they'd ever eaten genetically modified food, while a 2010 survey by the International Food Information Council reported that only 28% of respondents knew such foods were sold in stores.
Currently 14 states have introduced legislation on GMO labeling, but only Alaska, with its huge wild salmon industry, has passed a biotech seafood labeling law.
On the issue of safety, both sides of the debate come armed with research. This year Spanish researchers published an overview of GMO food safety studies in Environment International finding that peer-reviewed studies had found health risks and no health risks in roughly equal numbers. The paper notes, however, that many studies finding no risks were sponsored by the biotech industry or associates.