Most genetically modified ingredients found in the food supply come from corn or soy, and are formulated into everything from cereal to corn chips to ketchup. (Only a handful of commercially available produce items, including some squashes and papayas are gene-altered.)
An estimated 60 to 80 percent of all processed foods in a typical American grocery store contain a genetically modified ingredient, and most of the soybeans and corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, containing Monsanto technology.
Regulators consider such ingredients substantially equivalent to non-gene-altered ingredients, and, therefore, not requiring of a label. But advocates for labeling say that these ingredients, first approved by regulators in the mid-1990s, have yet to be adequately studied for health or environmental safety.
At least 60 countries, including the United States' biggest trading partners, require that foods containing genetically modified ingredients carry a label.
"More than half the world's consumers already have the right to know what's in their food, including 'beacons of liberty' like China," Faber said. "It's ludicrous that in the 'Land of the Free' consumers don't have the same rights."
In those countries, in practice, few products carry a label. Instead, food manufacturers have sought out non-genetically-modified ingredients to avoid carrying labels that might, whether warranted or not, trigger consumer alarm.
The biotechnology and food industries have long held that labeling would scare consumers away from genetically modified products, which have not been linked to any food safety or health issues. The American Medical Association, for one, has said there is no scientific justification for labeling genetically modified foods.
"Anti-technology activists and organic food companies are using labeling efforts as a step toward reducing GE (genetically engineered) technology," said Batra, the biotech trade group spokesperson. "Certainly we are concerned because this is a strategy that takes advantage of consumers by making them fearful of a technology that has enormous economic and environmental benefits."
The food manufacturing industry also cites the costs and difficulties of tracing ingredients that are so ubiquitous in the food chain. Even Whole Foods, when protesters in St. Louis last year demanded the company require mandatory labels, said its strategy was to label foods that are "GMO-free," rather than those that contain genetically modified ingredients, because of the prevalence of those ingredients in the food supply.
The company still acknowledges there are challenges. Whole Food's Lowery said Friday that it may be impossible to source non-genetically modified alternatives for certain products, in which case it may not carry the product.
"It will be difficult, but we're committed to doing it," she said. "This is going to encourage our suppliers and manufacturers to ask deeper questions about our ingredients."
(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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