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Grocery quandary

For U.S.shoppers, a lack of labels limits choice on biotech products

By Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writer
Published Thursday, June 10, 2004 -- Last of five parts

ori Brennan, a health-conscious registered nurse ... Lori Brennan, a health-conscious registered nurse, shops at a natural foods market in Grass Valley and finds the choices on the shelves mind-boggling. She reads labels carefully but finds little guidance on whether foods contain genetically modified ingredients. “It's not easy to be a consumer,” she said. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

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.

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A tale of two nations

Click image to see more about food labeling in the United States and United Kingdom.

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 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.

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Look for the label

Click image to see more about which countries ban or require the labeling of foods that contain biotech ingredients.

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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