by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Nov 20 2015

FDA approves genetically modified salmon, and it won’t be labeled

The FDA has just approved AquAdvantage’s genetically engineered (GMO) Atlantic salmon.  The salmon will not have to be labeled as GMO.

The FDA has spent at least four years coming to this decision.  In previous posts, I’ve discussed.

What more to say?  Only that federal agencies are tone deaf about the GMO issue.

The FDA thinks that just because it judges the salmon safe to it, that automatically makes it acceptable to the public.

But as anyone who knows anything about risk communication can tell you, even if the salmon is safe to eat, the public may not want it for a host of other reasons.

The decision not to label the salmon, is also tone deaf.  The FDA bases its decision on its decision that genetic modification is not material, meaning that the GMO fish has a similar nutrient composition to wild or other farm-raised salmon.

But the FDA requires labeling of plenty of other non-material processes: made from concentrate, previously frozen, and irradiated, for example.

As far as I can tell, the FDA has learned nothing about risk communication in the 20 years since it approved GMO foods for production and consumption.  The protests are already underway, some from members of Congress.

Politico Pro Agriculture quotes Senator Lisa Murkowski (Dem-AK):

“We have made no bones about the fact that this is wrong, not only for Alaska and our wild salmon stocks…but around the country,” she said, adding: “At a bare minimum people around this country need to know what they are serving their families when it comes to seafood.”

Murkowski said the draft labeling guidance released today fell short of what consumers need and plans to “continue the fight” against the fish.

This will be interesting to watch.

The FDA documents


Sep 6 2015

Another exposé of industry-funded scientists: this time, GMOs and organics

Today’s New York Times has another front-page (and on the inside, full-page) story on the food industry’s financial relationships with academic scientists.

The article describes how Monsanto funded scientists to lobby for GMOs in Washington (I will say more about this in a subsequent post).

But, as is clear from this report, the organic industry is doing much the same.

The Times based the story on e-mails it collected through open records law requests (the equivalent of Freedom of Information Act requests for federal documents).

And surprise!  I turn up in Charles Benbrook’s.  I learned this from checking Twitter yesterday.


I’m only on the B-list for influencing public opinion?  Alas.

It seems that Charles Benbrook, a strong proponent of organics (as am I), was working with (for?) the Organic Valley Cooperative on a public relations campaign to promote his organics-funded study demonstrating that organic milk has a healthier fatty acid profile than conventional milk.

I vaguely remember him contacting me about the study, but I didn’t write anything about it.  It appeared to be an industry-funded study with results favoring the sponsor’s interests—much as, in this case, I sympathize with those interests.

A few months later, I did write write about another conflicted organic study:

The study is not independently funded….This study is another example of how the outcome of sponsored research invariably favors the sponsor’s interests.  The paper says “the  [Sheepdrove] Trust  had  no  influence  on  the  design  and management of the  research  project  and  the  preparation  of publications  from the project,” but that’s exactly what studies funded by Coca-Cola say.  It’s an amazing coincidence how the results of sponsored studies almost invariably favor the sponsor’s interests.  And that’s true of results I like just as it is of results that I don’t like.

Benbrook has been criticized recently for not fully disclosing his ties to the organic industry.  Even if he had, disclosure is not enough.

The bottom line: Conflicted studies are conflicted, no matter who pays for them.

Documents: Charles Benbrook

Sep 1 2015

GM potato approved for production

On Friday, the USDA announced that it approved production of “Innate” potatoes, genetically modified by the Simplot company to

  • Resist blight
  • Store longer at cold temperatures
  • Not turn brown when cooked
  • Produce less acrylamide

The official Federal Register notice is published here.

Earlier this year, the FDA “completed its consultation” with Simplot:

Simplot’s varieties of Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank and Atlantic potatoes are collectively known by the trade name “Innate” and are genetically engineered to reduce the formation of black spot bruises by lowering the levels of certain enzymes in the potatoes.

In addition, they are engineered to produce less acrylamide by lowering the levels of an amino acid called asparagine and by lowering the levels of reducing-sugars. 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.

These sound like useful traits.  According to the Simplot video (worth watching), the company is proud of having produced a “better, more sustainable potato.”


  • Will Simplot voluntarily label its potatoes as genetically modified with enhanced characteristics?  There is precedent for doing so.  In the early 1990s, Calgene intended to do just that with its GM tomatoes (but the tomatoes failed in production and Monsanto bought the company).
  • Will McDonald’s use Innate potatoes for its French Fries?
  • Will supermarkets carry them?

I will be watching this one with great interest.

Aug 3 2015

Retraction of the Golden Rice paper: an issue of ethics

Despite my long interest in and dubious opinion about the benefits of Golden Rice (genetically modified to contain the beta-carotene precursor of vitamin A), I somehow completely missed the huge and highly embarrassing uproar over a study demonstrating the effectiveness of this rice in raising vitamin A levels in young children.

This particular uproar began with publication of the study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2012.  Last week the journal announced that it has retracted the study—on ethical, not scientific, grounds.

To explain:  Dr. Guangwen Tang, a long-time researcher at Tufts University, and her colleagues at Tufts, in China, and at Baylor and the NIH, compared the effectiveness of vitamin A capsules, Golden Rice, and spinach in raising vitamin A levels in the blood of Chinese schoolchildren.  They reported that Golden Rice proved just as effective as capsules, and somewhat better than spinach, in inducing higher vitamin A levels, just as it is supposed to do.

Golden Rice, of course, is the poster child for the benefits of GMOs, extolled by many as the solution to the developing world’s high prevalence of vitamin A deficiency (I’m dubious because I view vitamin A deficiency as a social problem requiring policy and cultural shifts).

Soon after, Greenpeace, which is decidedly anti-GMO, challenged the ethics of the study, charging that the children were being used as “guinea pigs.”

As reported in Nature,

none of the children, their parents or school teachers was aware that Golden Rice was involved, according to a 45-minute investigative news programme broadcast on 8 December on CCTV, China’s state television channel.  The informed-consent form said that the rice contained β-carotene, but not that it was genetically modified or that it was Golden Rice. Nor did it highlight uncertainty around any potential risks of ingesting such rice…Moreover, Wang didn’t apply for ethical evaluation of the trial, instead fabricating the approval documents, according to CDC. And Tang brought Golden Rice from the United States to China illegally, without due declaration to the relevant Chinese authorities, it said.

According to a report on NPR, Tufts University did a year-long investigation and agreed that ethical standards had been violated:

the study was not “conducted in full compliance with … policy or federal regulations”… the researchers did not adequately explain the nature of golden rice and made some changes in the study without getting approval from the committee at Tufts that is supposed to review all research involving human subjects.  Guangwen Tang will be banned from conducting research on human subjects for two years. For two years after that, any research that she conducts will be under the direct supervision of another investigator.

A report on the case in ScienceInsider explains the ethical problem raised by the study’s informed consent form :

U.S. guidelines stipulate that such forms use plain language understandable to lay people, and the IRB [the Tufts Institutional Review Board] agreed to let Tang say that “Golden Rice is a new rice which makes beta-carotene,” without using the loaded words “genetically modified.” (The consent form for a very similar study by Tang among adults in Boston, published in 2009, didn’t use that term either.) Given the sensitivities over transgenic food, which existed in China as well, that was the wrong decision, according to the external panel.

In 2014,  Dr. Tang sued the ASN:

ASN twice asked Tang and her six co-authors to withdraw the paper voluntarily, which they declined to do. The society recently decided to retract the paper on its own…but it has agreed to a 90-day stay after Tang filed her lawsuit, to see if the matter can be settled out of court.

But the court ruled in favor of ASN.  Hence, the retraction.  ASN issued a press release:

In a ruling by the Massachusetts Superior Court, Judge Salinger…cleared the way for the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) to retract the article “β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children”…ASN is very pleased that the Massachusetts courts have upheld the organization’s First Amendment rights and have allowed ASN to move forward with the retraction of the article.

In its online retraction notice, ASN states the reasons:

  1. The authors are unable to provide sufficient evidence that the study had been reviewed and approved by a local ethics committee in China in a manner fully consistent with NIH guidelines….
  2. The authors are unable to substantiate through documentary evidence that all parents or children involved in the study were provided with the full consent form for the study.
  3. Specific eligibility issues were identified in regard to 2 subjects in the study.

Last week, Retraction Watch published a lengthy summary of this case that includes a long statement from Tufts University:

No questions were raised about the integrity of the study data, accuracy of the research results or safety of the research subjects…Tufts University has always been and remains deeply committed to the highest ethical and scientific standards in research.  In September 2012, w …convened an external review committee to interview those involved and to review documentation of the study…There was no evidence found of falsification or fabrication of the data that underlie the study’s primary findings. Those reviews did, however, determine that the research had not been conducted in full compliance with Tufts research policies and federal research regulations.

The retraction is a huge embarrassment, not only for the researchers involved but also for Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts’ Institutional Review Board, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition.

The study was funded by NIH, USDA, as well as a program in China.  NIH takes research ethics very seriously and expects the researchers it funds to adhere to the highest possible standards for research on human subjects.  Because the study did not follow standard ethical guidelines, especially with regard to research on children, Tufts had no choice but to investigate and impose sanctions, and the journal had no choice but to retract the paper.

This case reinforces my views about GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular.

The controversies are not (or not usually) about the science.  They are very much about ethics and other questions of values.

Jul 22 2015

House to block GMO labeling tomorrow?

Ordinarily I don’t pay close attention to early congressional legislative initiatives until they seem likely to be passed by both houses and signed by the President.

But the House seems likely to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (HR 1599) tomorrow, and what’s happening with it is worth a look.  Opponents call the bill the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.”  (Update July 23: the House passed the bill with a vote of 275 for and 150 against, with the help of African-American representatives).

The purpose of HR 1599 is to block states—like Vermont, for example—from requiring labels on GMO foods [see details below at *].

How it works is best seen in the amendments that will be considered tomorrow.  Of the 14 amendments proposed, the House Rules Committee will allow discussion of these four.

  • Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore:  if a U.S. company or subsidiary labels a product as containing GMOs in any foreign country, it must label the equivalent product the same way in the United States.  (Defeated 122 to 303)
  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif: ensures tribal sovereignty to prohibit or restrict the cultivation of GMOs on tribal lands. (Defeated 196 to 227)
  • Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn: prohibits use of the term “natural” on GMO foods. (Defeated 163 to 262)
  • Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine: strikes the entire bill and creates a USDA non-GMO certification program and label. (Defeated by voice vote)

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jim McGovern say “Let consumers decide for themselves.”

Americans want more information, not less. What we need is one law that makes GMO labeling mandatory across the country and establishes a single national standard that eliminates confusion and puts consumers in charge.

This debate isn’t about the safety of GMOs. It’s about consumers’ right to know what’s in the food they put on their tables. We ought to give them that right.

It’s interesting to see who is for this bill, and who against. One major proponent is the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which joined 475 other members of the industry “front group,” the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, in signing a letter in support.

Those opposed include the National Organic Coalition and the Just Label It campaign.   Also opposed are Food Democracy Now and the National Farmers Union, along with a long list of farm, consumer, and environmental groups.

Even if the House passes the bill, nobody in the Senate seems interested in it as yet.  So maybe this is all just theater.

But I read it as acknowledgment by the GMO industry and its food product supporters that the labeling issue is not going to go away.  Therefore, they had best try to preempt it by passing a law they can live with and making sure that states do not pass their own, stronger bills.

Stay tuned.

*Addition: I received a request to unpack the bill and state its terms.  HR 1599:

  • Calls for premarket notification of new GMOs introduced into the food supply.
  • Says the process of GMO is not sufficient to require labeling.
  • Says non-GMO labeling cannot imply that non-GMO is safer.
  • Blocks voluntary non-GMO labeling.
  • Prevents states from requiring GMO labeling.
  • Allows the term “natural” on labels of GMO foods.
  • Establishes a non-GMO certification program requiring process controls and preemption of state laws.

Update, July 27: According to, representatives who voted against GMO labeling received three times as much money from agribusiness as those who did not.  OpenSecrets calls this a “cash crop.”




May 12 2015

Milan Food Expo: The Coldiretti Pavilion

I especially enjoyed the pavilion of Coldiretti, an association of Italian farmers.


“No party” can—and is supposed to be—read two ways: no fun, or no political clout.

The pavilion houses a farmers’ market promoting the products of its members.

Coldiretti doesn’t have much use for GMOs, but for reasons we don’t often consider in the U.S.

2015-05-02 15.54.56In case you can’t read the photo:

What is good for the GMO multinational corporations is bad for Italy.

Because they cancel our extraordinary diversity.

Because they suffocate many to reward one.

Because the seeds of the earth belong to those who work it.

Because food certainties belong to “free research.”

Whatever you think of such views, I’m hoping the Milan Food Expo will get visitors thinking about these food issues and more.

Apr 27 2015

Chipotle goes GMO-free: a brief comment

Chipotle’s announcement that it will only be sourcing GMO-free ingredients is eliciting much press (see the article in the New York Times, for example).

Here’s what I’m telling reporters:

No, this is not a safety issue.  GMO corn ingredients were not making Chipotle customers sick.

Yes, this is a matter of trust.  Chipotle customers are offended that GMO foods are not labeled and that they have no choice about whether to eat them.

The GM industry has fought labeling since 1994 when the FDA first approved GM foods for production.  Even then, there was plenty of evidence that the public wanted these foods labeled.  But the industry is still pouring million of dollars into fighting labeling initiatives.

This—and the rise in sales of organic foods—are a direct result of the industry’s own actions.

Apr 22 2015

Vermont’s new GMO labeling regulations

Vermont has issued GMO labeling rules.  They seem straightforward.  Here are the ones that I think matter:

1.  Unpackaged GMO foods must post labels

  • Raw: “produced with genetic engineering.”
  • Processed: “produced with genetic engineering,” or “may be produced with genetic engineering.”

2.  Packaged GMO foods must be labeled by the manufacturer

  • Raw: “produced with genetic engineering”
  • Processed: “produced with genetic engineering,” or “partially produced with genetic engineering” (<75% GMO) or “may be produced with genetic engineering (if they aren’t sure).”

3.  If the food is GMO, it cannot be labeled “natural”

4.  The font can’t be any smaller that of Serving Size in the Nutrition Facts label

It’s hard for me to imagine why the biotechnology industry, Grocery Manufacturers Association, and so many food companies think that saying “may be produced with genetic engineering” means the end of civilization as we know it, so much so that they pour millions of dollars into fighting it.


Now they are taking Vermont to court to try to block implementation of these rules.

Otherwise, the rules go into effect July 1, 2016.

That will be fun to see!





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