TRENTON, N.J. - Can animal genes be jammed into plants? Would tomatoes with catfish
genes taste fishy? Have you ever eaten a genetically modified food? The answers
are: yes, no and almost definitely. But according to a survey, most Americans
couldn't answer correctly even though they've been eating genetically modified
foods ? unlabeled ? for nearly a decade.
"It's just not on the radar screen," said William Hallman, associate
director of the Food Biotechnology Program at the Rutgers Food Policy Institute,
which conducted the survey.
Today, roughly 75 percent of U.S. processed foods ? boxed cereals, other grain
products, frozen dinners, cooking oils and more ? contain some genetically modified,
or GM, ingredients, said Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Despite dire warnings about "Frankenfoods," there have been no reports
of illness from these products of biotechnology. Critics note there's no system
for reporting allergies or other reactions to GM foods.
Nearly every product with a corn or soy ingredient, and some containing canola
or cottonseed oil, has a GM element, according to the grocery manufacturers
In the Rutgers survey, less than half the people interviewed were aware GM
foods are sold in supermarkets. At the same time, more than half wrongly believed
supermarket chicken has been genetically modified.
So far, non-processed meat, poultry, fish and dairy products, and fruits and
vegetables (both fresh and frozen) are not genetically modified.
GM food first hit supermarkets in 1994, with the highly touted Flavr Savr tomato,
altered to give it a longer shelf life and better flavor. It flopped, in part
due to disappointing taste, and disappeared in 1997, said Childs.
By 1995, farmers in several countries had planted millions of acres of GM corn
and soybeans, and processed products containing them were in grocery stores.
Genetic modification of crops involves transferring genes from a plant or animal
into a plant. Nearly all GM changes so far are to boost yields and deter insects
and viruses, cutting the use of pesticides, thus making farming more productive
and affordable ? a particular aid to developing nations.
More than 80 percent of the soy and 40 percent of the corn raised in this country
is a GM variety. Global plantings of biotech crops ? mostly corn and soybeans
and much of it for animal feed ? grew to about 200 million acres last year,
about two-thirds of it in the United States.
The one billionth acre will be planted this spring, according to the Biotechnology
Experts say within several years there will be new GM foods with taste and
nutrition improvements: cooking oils with less trans fat, tastier potatoes and
peanuts that don't trigger allergies.
At North Carolina State University, one of the biggest U.S. plant breeding
programs, scientists are developing drought-tolerant wheat and are a couple
years from field testing GM peanuts that have no life-threatening allergens,
said Steven Leath, associate dean for health research.
At Rutgers University's agricultural college, plant biology professor Nilgun
Tumer and colleagues modified potatoes to better keep their flavor when processed
as french fries and to limit browning when sliced, but she said farmers haven't
adopted the new varieties. Now her team is trying to give tomatoes a gene to
make a compound that helps prevent cancer and osteoporosis.
Lisa Lorenzen, a liaison to the biotech industry at Iowa State University,
said most Americans haven't worried about GM foods because they trust the regulatory
system. She said many Europeans oppose GM foods because they don't trust governments
that wrongly insisted for years that the beef supply, tainted by mad cow disease,
Opponents say genetically modified foods could cause allergic or toxic reactions
and harm the environment. Worries include the mixing of GM crops with regular
ones either by handlers, or pollen ? already documented ? and GM foods being
sold where they're not approved.
On Tuesday, a Swiss biotech company said it mistakenly sold U.S. farmers an
experimental, unapproved GM corn seed, and tons of the resulting corn was sold
between 2001 and 2004. U.S. government agencies say there was no health or environmental
In 2000, recalls, lawsuits and public uproar followed disclosure that StarLink
GM corn, approved only for animal use, had gotten into taco shells and chips.
University plant scientists, industry, the Food and Drug Administration (news
- web sites) and numerous European science agencies say GM foods are safe.
"Nobody's been able to prove that anyone's even gotten the sniffles from
biotechnology," Childs said.
But Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said there's no system
to track health problems caused by GM foods.
Her group, along with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has long
pushed for labeling ? only required when GM products have properties different
from ordinary foods, such as a higher nutrient content. They contend consumers
deserve a choice if they want to avoid GM foods and they also want government
Currently, companies developing GM foods voluntarily send their data to the
FDA (news - web sites), but there's no official approval before products go
"It's left up to the good nature of Monsanto or DuPont or other companies
to do the right thing," said Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology
project at CSPI.
On the Net:
Rutgers study: http://www.foodpolicyinstitute.org
Biotechnology Industry Association http://www.bio.org