by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Oct 2 2010

District court says Ohio can label milk rBGH-free

The Center for Food Safety reports that a Federal Appeals Court has overturned an Ohio state ban on label statements such as “rbGH Free,” “rbST Free” and “artificial hormone free” on milk from cows that have not been treated with genetically modified bovine growth hormone (a.k.a. bovine somatotropin, or rbST).

In ruling on the case, IDFA et al v. Boggs, the court said:

The district court held that the composition claims were inherently misleading because “they imply a compositional difference between those products that are produced with rb[ST] and those that are not,” in contravention of the FDA’s finding that there is no measurable compositional difference between the two.

This conclusion is belied by the record, however, which shows that, contrary to the district court’s assertion, a compositional difference does exist between milk from untreated cows and conventional milk (“conventional milk,” as used throughout this opinion, refers to milk from cows treated with rbST). As detailed by the amici parties seeking to strike down the Rule, the use of rbST in milk production has been shown to elevate the levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a naturally-occurring hormone that in high levels is linked to several types of cancers, among other things. The amici also point to certain studies indicating that rbST use induces an unnatural period of milk production during a cow’s “negative energy phase.” According to these studies, milk produced during this stage is considered to be low quality due to its increased fat content and its decreased level of proteins.

The amici further note that milk from treated cows contains higher somatic cell counts, which makes the milk turn sour more quickly and is another indicator of poor milk quality. This evidence precludes us from agreeing with the district court’s conclusion that there is no compositional difference between the two types of milk.

The court also said:

Like composition claims, production claims such as “this milk is from cows not supplemented with rbST” are potentially misleading because they imply that conventional milk is inferior or unsafe in some way. But neither the FDA nor any study has conclusively shown that to be the case.

Want to bet that this one goes to the Supreme Court?

Sep 23 2010

Genetically modified foods in supermarkets: how many?

A reader writes that the discussion over genetically modified foods makes no sense because: “virtually every food we consume today  has been genetically  modified.”

The accuracy of this statement depends, of course, on how you define “genetically modified.”  If you include traditional genetic crosses done through plant and animal breeding, the statement is correct.

If, however, you restrict the definition of GM foods to those involving actual manipulations of DNA (rather than eggs and sperm), and the insertion of DNA from one organism into the DNA of another, then the number of GM foods approved for production in the United States is quite limited.

The FDA provides a list of such foods in its inventory of completed consultations on bioengineered foods.

The list includes GM corn, soybeans, cotton, cotton, alfalfa, canola, and sugarbeets, most of which are fed to animals or used as ingredients in processed foods.

But what about supermarket fruits and vegetables?  To answer this question requires a clear separation between approval of production and actual production.

To date, the FDA has approved production of GM varieties of plums, cantaloupe, papaya, squash, radicchio, tomatoes, and potatoes.  Note: sweet corn–the kind you eat off the cob–is not on the list.

Even if approved, the GM varieties may not be in your supermarket.  GM varieties, it turns out, are difficult to produce under field conditions.

When I was doing the research for What to Eat in 2005 or so I tried hard to find out which supermarket foods might be GM.  This was not easy.  Basically, nobody knew.  Unless you test for GM, you can’t tell, and nobody was testing.

So I did some testing.  The foods most highly suspected of being GM were papayas from Hawaii engineered to resist ringspot virus.  I sent samples of seeds from several varieties of supermarket papayas to GeneticID, a company that does such testing (at, alas, great expense).   As I recount in the book, the only papaya that tested positive was the one from Hawaii.  The one labeled organic did not and neither did any of the others.

I believe that the public has a right to know whether supermarket foods are GM varieties.  Without labeling, you can’t tell.  That is why we need GM labeling.

As I explained a year ago, the U.K. requires labeling of GM ingredients and companies making products with GM ingredients do so.  We could do this too, and we should.

Addition: The Associated Press writes about the significance of these discussions (I’m quoted).

Sep 21 2010

The GM salmon saga continues

The FDA has just concluded two days of hearings on the safety and labeling of genetically modified (GM) salmon. I’ve been collecting comments about this and will add a few of my own.

USA Today: Let’s begin with Elizabeth Weise’s clear, insightful summary of what this is about. She summarizes the situation with GM salmon in a nifty Q and A format:

Q: What happens next?

A: Nothing soon. Before issuing a decision on the application, FDA will publish an Environmental Assessment of the salmon, followed by a required 30-day comment period. The agency would then determine whether it would file a Finding of No Significant Impact or an Environmental Impact Statemen….then use those findings to make a decision on whether or not to allow the sale of the salmon. The agency has said it has no set timeline for reaching a decision. Were the agency to decide to approve the sale of the salmon, it would take two years before the first crop was ready, company officials say.

Food Chemical News (September 20):  reports that AquaBounty’s CEO has no intention of restricting GM salmon farms to Panama. At the FDA hearing, he “forecast a spread of transgenic salmon operations from a proposed site in Panama to other countries, including the United States.”

Oops. The FDA had to remind him that his company’s application is for Panama only, and any other sites would require supplemental applications from the firm.”  The FDA said it was “not interested in AquaBounty’s future business plans.”

FoodNavigator.com reporter Caroline Scott-Thomas predicts that the hearings will lead to no recommendation.

The FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC) did not vote or make a recommendation at the end of the hearings, saying that it does not yet have sufficient data…After two days of hearings, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel has called for more research to decide whether genetically engineered salmon is safe for consumption.

The New York Times says that the advisory group favored approval of the GM salmon, but that this could take ages.

Food Chemical News (September 21) says that most speakers at the hearing on GM labeling did not want it to be mandatory. It quotes Greg Jaffe, the director of biotechnology at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), as opposing mandatory labeling. Apparently, Jaffe:

urged AquaBounty to require its customers to provide “real” voluntary labeling on food products, such as “AquaBounty salmon,” “fast-growing salmon” or “environmentally friendly salmon”….He agreed that “no ingredients from a genetically engineered source” would be acceptable language provided there’s a comparable GE product in the marketplace.

Why would a representative of a consumer organization oppose mandatory labeling?  For that, go to

Jill Richardson’s lengthy analysis of FDA’s actions, written for Grist.  She lays out some of the more complicated issues, and takes a tough look at the biases of the committee members.

Washington Post: Lindsey Layton writes about the debates over labeling (I’m quoted).

A Washington Post poll found 78% of respondents to be worried about the health and safety risks of GM salmon.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the new government has stopped a scheduled public dialogue about GM foods.  That’s one way to handle it. All those pesky consumers don’t want it? Too bad for them.

My interpretation: of course the public does not trust genetically modified foods. The foods are not labeled. If the biotech industry and the FDA want the public to trust them, they need to label the GM salmon and all the other GM foods in the marketplace.

The public wants the right to choose.  The public should have the right to choose.

The issue of GM foods cannot just be about safety.

My mantra on this one: Even if genetically modified foods are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable.

I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in 1993 when, under pressure from Monsanto, the agency rejected labeling of GM foods.  I wish the FDA had listened to me and the other consumer representatives on the committee, all of us convinced that labeling is essential for promoting trust, and giving the public a choice. And, we said, it’s the right thing to do.

The FDA now has a chance to redeem it’s bad decision.  I hope they take this opportunity and decide to require labeling.

Footnote: I wrote about all this in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, just published in a new edition in July.  In preparing the second edition seven years later, I was surprised by how little about food biotechnology had changed.  The issues have not changed.  The field is stuck.   Labeling is one way to break the stalemate.  Let the public have a choice.  I’ll bet doing that will solve a lot of problems.

Sep 2 2010

Fish fight: FDA to hear comments on GM salmon

The FDA has scheduled meetings September 19-21 to hear advice about whether the agency should approve GM (genetically modified) salmon.

These, you may recall are Atlantic salmon bioengineered by AquaBounty Technologies.   Atlantic salmon only grow for a few months per year; they do not produce growth hormone in non-growth months.  AquaBounty scientists combined growth hormone genes from an unrelated Pacific salmon with DNA from the anti-freeze genes of an eelpout fish.

The result is that the GM salmon produce growth hormone throughout the year and grow at twice the rate of non-GM salmon.

In preparation for these hearings, a coalition of 31 advocacy groups issued a statement urging the FDA not to approve the fish.

Each year millions of farmed salmon escape from open-water net pens, outcompeting wild populations for resources and straining ecosystems…We believe any approval of GE salmon would represent a serious threat to the survival of native salmon populations, many of which have already suffered severe declines related to salmon farms and other man-made impacts….FDA’s decision to go ahead with this approval process is misguided and dangerous, and is made worse by its complete lack of data to review…FDA has been sitting on this application for 10 years and yet it has chosen not to disclose any data about its decision until just a few days before the public meeting.

According to press accounts, salmon are only the first in a long line of potential GM fish and animals.  AquaBounty also raises GM trout and tilapia.  Other companies are working on GM pigs and cows.

AquaBounty lost no time in responding to the Coalition’s objections:

This press release is inaccurate, deliberately misleading, and intended to create fear and misunderstanding. AquAdvantage salmon are, quite literally, the most studied fish in the world. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has spent the last fifteen years creating a robust regulatory process to ensure these fish and other transgenic animal applications are appropriately evaluated and regulated.

Comment: In the early 1990s, I was one of four consumer representatives on the FDA’s 30-member Food Advisory Committee.  This was the time when the FDA was considering approval of the first GM crops.   All four of us voted to delay the decision until more information became available or to make sure that GM foods were labeled as such.  Obviously, the FDA did not listen to our excellent advice.

Indeed, when our term on the committee was up, the head of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition explained to us that our committee had not really been advisory.  The FDA had already decided the issues that it brought to the committee for discussion.  All the agency wanted from the committee was some indication of the kind of public reaction its decisions might raise.

Is this still the case with FDA advisory hearings?  I really don’t know, but I hope the FDA will listen carefully to concerns about these fish.

Jul 6 2010

Supreme Court greenlights Monsanto’s GM Alfalfa

Several readers have asked me to comment on the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning a previous ban on growing Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) alfalfa.

What happened with this case is so complicated that Food Chemical News (June 28 2010) produced a timeline to help track the events.

In summary:

  • The Supreme Court’s decision overturned lower court bans on growing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” (herbicide-resistant) alfalfa.
  • The lower courts imposed the ban because the USDA had failed to prepare the required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) evaluating the consequences of planting GM alfalfa.
  • USDA did not prepare a full EIS because its preliminary investigations showed that planting GM alfalfa had “no significant impact.”

As explained by FoodSafetyNews.com,  environmental groups argued that the USDA is required by law to prepare a full EIS and sued to ban GM alfalfa. The court agreed and said GM alfalfa could not be planted until USDA prepared an EIS. An appeals court upheld this decision. The Supreme Court now says that decision was too drastic, in effect permitting USDA to decide whether to allow GM alfalfa to be planted pending completion of the EIS.

In response to this situation, the USDA says it will (1) thoroughly review the Supreme Court’s decision before deciding what to do about GM alfalfa, and (2) complete the EIS in time for next spring’s planting.

For environmental and business groups, two issues are at stake:

  • Organics: As FoodNavigator.com explains, if GM alfalfa is planted, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa, the main forage crop for organic dairy cattle. Organic dairy producers will not be able to sell milk as Certified Organic.
  • International trade: If conventional alfalfa is contaminated by GM alfalfa, growers of conventional alfalfa will not be able to sell their crops to countries that forbid import of GM crops.

On these grounds, fifty-six members of Congress signed a letter to the USDA Secretary asking him not to deregulate GM alfalfa.

My comment: Until USDA decides what to do, the game is not over. Now is the time to let USDA know whether you think GM alfalfa should be deregulated. And while you are at it, why not toss in an opinion about whether you think GM foods should be labeled as such.

Jul 5 2010

The latest on GM foods

USDA has just released  the most recent statistics on use of genetically modified crops in the U.S.

This, of course, does not include sugar beets, which are also in the over 90% range.

How to interpret this?  If you eat any processed foods containing corn, soybeans, or beet sugar, you should assume that they have a high probability of containing genetically modified ingredients.

You don’t like this?  Choose organics!

You think GM foods should be labeled?  Write your congressional representatives!

Jun 4 2010

The latest on GM foods

My newly updated book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, is just out from University of California Press.  Half the book is about the politics of genetically modified (GM) foods.  Politics explains these latest developments:

1.  FDA awards GRAS status to Monsanto’s Vistive Gold soybeans:  These beans have been genetically modified to be lower in linolenic acid and, therefore, more stable to oxidation.  Does this refer to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)?  If so, this is an omega-3 fatty acid that gets converted in the body to the longer chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA.  Don’t we want more linolenic acid in our foods, not less? Or am I missing something here?

2.  Friends of organics in Congress want USDA to continue the ban on Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa: The courts ruled that this alfalfa cannot be planted until USDA completes and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), is is required by law.  According to the USDA’s preliminary assessment of the impact, RR alfalfa will not adversely affect the environment. But more than 20,000 people wrote to say that they disagreed with the USDA’s benign view.

The letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack points out that alfalfa is a major forage for dairy cows.  If USDA allows GM alfalfa to be grown, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa grown organically (through pollen drift).  If organic dairy producers cannot get uncontaminated organic alfalfa to feed their cows, they will not be able to get their milk certified as organic.

3.  USDA says it will do an EIS for GM sugar beets: Last year, a judge ruled that GM sugar beets, which now comprise 90% or more of sugar beet plantings, could not be planted again until the USDA did an EIS.  Oops.  Somehow, the USDA forgot to do an EIS in 2005 when it allowed GM beets to be planted.

What are GM sugar beet producers supposed to do now? Apparently, a hearing to decide the main issues of a lawsuit (Center for Food Safety v. Schafer) has been scheduled for July 9.  At that hearing, the court is supposed to decide whether RR sugar beets should be banned until USDA does the EIS.  This is awkward because the EIS is expected to take 2 or 3 years.  Why?  Because it must consider:

  • Management practices for organic sugar beets, conventional sugar beets, and glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) sugar beets
  • Potential impacts on food and feed
  • Occurrence of common and serious weeds found in sugar beet systems and practices for controlling them
  • Potential for gene flow from Roundup resistant sugar beet to other plant species
  • Economic and social impacts on organic and conventional sugar beets, Swiss chard, and table beet farmers
  • Potential health impacts

4.  Most American consumers will accept GM wheat if it is produced sustainably, at least according to the results of a survey done by the International Food Information Council, a food industry group:

Although commercially available genetically modified (GM) wheat crops are likely to be at least a decade away, 80 percent of survey respondents said they would be likely to purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing GM wheat “if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides.” And consistent with the 2008 survey, 77 percent of respondents said they would buy foods produced through biotechnology if they helped cut pesticide use.

Now, if only they would!

May 5 2010

Oops. Weeds are developing resistance to Roundup

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article disclosing the rise and spread across the United States of “superweeds” that have developed resistant to the herbicide Roundup.  The article comes with a nifty interactive timeline map charting the spread of Roundup resistance into at least 10 species of weeds in 22 states.  Uh oh.

Roundup is Monsanto’s clever way to encourage use of genetically modified (GM) crops.  The company bioengineers the crops to resist Roundup.  Farmers can dump Roundup on the soil or plants.  In theory, only the GM crops will survive and farmers won’t have to use a lot of more toxic herbicides.  In practice, this won’t work if weeds develop Roundup resistance and flourish too.   Then farmers have to go back to conventional herbicides to kill the Roundup-resistant weeds.

In 1996, Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote “The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops” (based on a report they wrote in 1993).  In it, they predicted that widespread planting of GM crops would produce selection pressures for Roundup-resistant weeds.  These would be difficult and expensive to control.

At the time, and until very recently, Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, dismissed this idea as “hypothetical.”

I know this because in the mid-1990s, I traveled to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis to talk to company scientists and officials about the need for transparent labeling of GM foods.  Officials told me that Roundup had been used on plants for 70 years with only minimal signs of resistance, and it was absurd to think that resistance would become a problem.  I pointed out that Roundup resistance is a “point” mutation, one that requires minimal changes in the genetic makeup of a weed.

As I explained later in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (the new edition arrives June 1):

From a biochemical standpoint, resistance to Roundup is not difficult to achieve.  Its active chemical, glyphosate, inhibits the action of an enzyme that makes three amino acids needed to construct plant proteins.  Plants cannot make the protein when the enzyme is blocked.  Bacteria, however, are well known to produce a mutant varient of this enzyme that is completely unaffected by glyphosate; they do so through “point” mutations (mutations that alter just one amino acid) or mutations that that cause the enzyme to be produced in such large amounts that glyphosate becomes ineffective.  Such mutations could occur in plants as well as in bacteria.  The transfer of Roundup resistance to weeks through pollination also is probable, and has already occurred.  The idea of widespread resistance to Roundup is not improbable, and it alarms the industry as well as environmentalists.  [Pages 183-184]

The Times article makes it sound like Roundup resistance is the end of the world.  It’s bad news for GM crops, but sure seems like another good reason why we need more acres planted in sustainable, organic agriculture.

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