March 2015 was an eventful month for the subject of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. The two tempests stirred up by recent news and all the other issues in this long-running debate look to be headed for some kind of resolution this year – although the two sides are no closer today than they’ve ever been.
On March 20, the FDA proclaimed recent genetically engineered apples and potatoes “are as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts,” thereby removing any regulatory hurdles to their introduction to the market. Although just because there are no regulatory hurdles doesn’t mean there aren’t considerable market and consumer acceptance obstacles.
And on March 25, a bipartisan bill was resubmitted to the House of Representatives that would require the FDA to review genetically engineered ingredients intended for food and to decide on a case-by-case basis if a “contains GMOs” label is necessary for a resulting food product. Perhaps more importantly – and more contentious – the bill also would prevent individual states from creating their own GMO labeling laws.
Curiously, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” (HR-1599) seems to imply an unsafe food product would be allowed on the market as long as it carried the warning label – not exactly part of the FDA’s mission statement.
Another tricky part of the bill goes so far as to allow GMO-containing foods to be called “natural.” And that apparently would require the FDA to come up with a definition of natural – something the agency for years has been avoiding. There also are doubts that the FDA is sufficiently equipped, staffed and funded to take on the duties of GMO investigation.
The bill is a slight revision of last year’s identically titled bill, which also was introduced by Reps. Michael Pompeo (R-KS) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC). That bill garnered lots of media attention and some cosponsors, but it only got as far as a committee hearing in December.
The only key change in the 2015 bill is a provision to allow voluntary “GMO-free” labeling, with USDA being charged with creating a program or process for that.
“We took the positive feedback we received after our hearing in December and have been meeting with key stakeholders to ensure this is the right policy for both producers and consumers,” said Pompeo. “Our goal for this legislation remains to provide clarity and transparency in food labeling, support innovation and keep food affordable.”
While nothing’s certain in Washington, Pompeo’s office is optimistic the bill will become law this year because there is bipartisan support for it. However, it will need to make it through a few more committee meetings this summer and to find sponsors for a senate version. “We hope to have it on the president’s desk by the end of the year,” said a Pompeo spokesperson.
The bill got the expected statements of support. “[American Frozen Food Institute] Lauds Legislation in Support of Responsible Food Labeling.” Substitute Snack Foods Assn., International Dairy Foods Assn., National Milk Producers Federation, Washington Legal Foundation and more for AFFI in that headline.
The powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents most large food and beverage processors, has been a staunch supporter all along. “The entire purpose of food labeling is to provide consumers throughout our nation with clear and consistent information,” said President/CEO Pamela Bailey. “Congress must pass a bipartisan bill this year to ensure Americans continue to have access to consistent FDA-approved and science-based standards for food labeling.
“It’s important to know that this technology has been around for the past 20 years, and today, 70-80 percent of the foods we eat in the United States contain ingredients that have been genetically modified,” she continued. “The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMO ingredients are as safe as any other food. The Food and Drug Administration and major scientific and health organizations such as the American Medical Assn., National Academy of Sciences and World Health Organization all have found GMOs are safe for humans and positive for the environment. More than 2,000 studies show a clear consensus among the world’s leading scientific organizations that GMO ingredients are safe.”
But other press release headlines warned: “Consumers Union Urges Congress to Oppose Bill to Prevent States from Labeling GMO Foods.” Ditto for Organic Consumers Association, Environmental Working Group and Just Label It, among others.
There is urgency for some form of GMO labeling. Last year, Vermont became the first state to require labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients. However, the law’s effective date is in 2016, and already there are legal challenges.
Several smaller municipalities, cities and counties, also have passed labeling laws. And while every one of a handful of state ballot initiatives requiring labeling has failed, the most recent one, last November in Oregon, failed by just 812 votes out of 1.5 million cast (just 0.06 percent).
Simultaneously, voluntary certification and labeling of non-GMO foods by such organizations as the Non-GMO Project is growing.
So there certainly is evidence that many Americans – maybe not a majority but a significant number – want to at least know if the food they buy has GMOs – even though there is no credible scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful.
Meanwhile, down on the farm
The FDA’s March 20 announcement was a public acknowledgement the agency had completed its evaluation of two varieties of apples – together known by the trade name Arctic Apples – created by Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. and six varieties of Innate potatoes made by J. R. Simplot Co.
As agricultural items, the two already had been cleared by USDA. “The FDA’s safety consultation on Innate potatoes was voluntarily requested by Simplot as a further evaluation of the Innate technology, which has been in development for more than a decade,” said the potato company. “These federal clearances involved years of technical review and a thorough public comment period that drew the support of 14 leading potato research universities in the U.S. and Europe.”
Simplot is a vertically integrated agricultural firm encompassing seed production, farming, fertilizer manufacturing, frozen-food processing and food brands and distribution. As a result, it has personas that face farmers, food processing and restaurant customers and consumers, the last with such brands as Culinary Select, Infinity, RoastWorks, Simplot Sweets and Upsides.
The company is “working with growers and retailers to bring to the U.S. market several popular potato varieties with improved traits that benefit consumers, food producers and growers. Innate potatoes have fewer black spots from bruising, stay whiter longer when cut or peeled, and have lower levels of naturally occurring asparagine, resulting in less acrylamide when cooked at high temperatures.”
The acrylamide claim is not to be easily overlooked. Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods during high-temperature cooking, such as frying, and has been found to be carcinogenic in rodents.
“Because the Innate potato provides significant benefits consumers want, including less bruising, less waste and more convenience, Simplot will recommend to growers and retail partners that they accurately promote and market these exclusive features on relevant packaging,” according to company statements.
“The Innate potato is the most promising advancement in the potato industry I’ve seen in my 30 years studying agriculture,” said David Douches, Ph.D., at Michigan State University’s Dept. of Crop and Soil Sciences, who has implemented field trials of Innate (in a statement supplied by Simplot). “This potato delivers significant health and sustainability benefits, all by using the potato’s own DNA. Such advancements haven’t been possible using traditional breeding.”
Simplot says it used techniques of modern biotechnology to accelerate the traditional breeding process and introduce new traits by triggering the potato’s own RNA interference (RNAi) pathway. “RNAi is a natural cellular process commonly used by plants and animals to modulate expression of certain genes and has been used effectively in multiple commercial crops sold over the last decade,” the company explained.
However, this “new form of genetic engineering, called RNA interference, works by shutting down the ability of RNA to translate DNA into protein in a cell. [It] raises many new, unanswered questions,” said Consumer Reports. Both the Innate potatoes and the Arctic Apples use RNA interference.
Okanagan’s Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties of apples are genetically engineered to resist browning associated with cuts and bruises by reducing levels of enzymes that can cause browning.
Simplot says three Innate potato varieties are expected to be available in limited quantities sometime this year in the fresh and fresh-cut markets “where the sustainability, higher quality and health benefits have significant value to growers and consumers.”
A second generation of Innate potatoes, currently under review by the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will offer two additional improvements to the potato, including increased resistance to late blight disease and better storability. “These advantages will create significant sustainability advances, such as reduced reliance on fungicides and fewer rejected potatoes.”
“The potato is an important and nutritious food staple, but susceptible to damage when grown and stored,” said Haven Baker, vice president and general manager of Simplot Plant Sciences. “Innate has the potential to reduce post-harvest food waste and help meet the demand for better, more sustainable crops in the years ahead.”
However, when the Innate potato received USDA approval back in November, there were critics. Several media reported a McDonald statement that said: “McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.” At least one medium credited that to the Idaho Statesman newspaper.
Simplot is a major supplier of french fries, hash browns and other potato products for restaurant chains like McDonald’s.
ABC News and Associated Press reported this isn’t the first time the fast-food industry has resisted GMO potatoes. More than a decade ago, Monsanto brought its bug-resistant “New Leaf” line of genetically modified potato to market. Buyers rejected it and Monsanto pulled it from production due to lack of business.
“If you’re going to let the market decide, you’re going to have to give people a reference point to make a decision based on their personal purchasing habits, and I would assume that would be through some kind of labeling,” says Fred Steele, president of the Okanagan Fruit Growers’ Association, based in Kelowna, British Columbia. That’s home to the Artic Apple’s developer, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., but that doesn’t mean all farmers in the area are supportive.
Quoted in Globalnews.ca, Steele says there is concern that if the Artic Apple isn’t labeled as a GMO product, consumers who don’t want to buy modified foods might want to stay away from all apples, including those that are non-GMO. “I’ve never contested the science of this thing,” he said. “It is the market reaction to this thing, and we really don’t know yet.”