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Grocery quandary

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

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.

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Grocery store choices

Click image to see more about grocery store policies on genetically modified foods.

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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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.”

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Biotech terms

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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View the photo gallery Erik Freese, right, waits while corn from his truck moves up a conveyor belt at a grain company in Woodland, where he sells the corn for cattle feed. He began using biotech corn in 2001. Renée C. Byer

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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