I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers. Q.4 Should labeling GM foods be mandatory in Canada? There is a private member bill that has been introduced to label GMOs in Canada plus 24+ legislative (municipal and state level) initiatives currently on ‘the books’ in the US. This whole issue of labeling is not going away anytime soon. The problem is that the issue is often oversimplified in the media. It’s not as simple as slapping a label on a can and calling it a day. Mandatory labeling invokes traceability within the food system. And no matter what the headlines say, that means costs. When people think GMOs and labeling, they most often think big seed companies (like Monsanto) and big retailers (like Walmart). The ag and food production value chain is long and complex, comprised of many different actors including producers/farmers, elevator managers, grain distributors, seed companies, food processors, transporters, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, etc. If governments were to enact mandatory labeling , costs would be incurred throughout that value chain (all actors). And those costs would be passed onto the consumer. In addition to increased food costs, mandatory labeling of GMOs would have other effects. According to the results of a recent study conducted by MIT professor Juaniuan Zhang, consumers assumes that the government knows more than they do about the safety of the food supply. So, if the government requires labels on food, consumers will suspect that there is something wrong with it. Thus, a GMO label runs the real risk of looking like a warning label. On a related note, our current food labeling system (regulated by the federal government) operates on some fundamental tenets. First off, labels on food products are reserved for foodstuffs that carry a documented health risk (eg. allergen) or in cases where products represent a substantive change in nutritional composition. Scientific evidence affirms that GMO foods are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods (see studies mentioned above). Labeling them for consumers (mandatory) would be misleading. Labels, by law, cannot be misleading. The other argument here is that if people wish to avoid GMOs, they can. There are third party certified labels for “non GMO” (The Non GMO Project) and you can always choose to buy “certified organic” (US and Canada). So, a GMO label seems a bit redundant. Now, voluntary labeling on the part of the food industry is a whole other issue. Some argue that industry should have been more proactive long ago and incorporated what is referred to as “positive” labeling strategies for products with GMO ingredients. It may have mitigated some of the controversy that has gone on for the past 20 years. This voluntary labeling thing is not out of the realm of possibilities for now either. But the devil will be in the details. How and what to label is the real question. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. Here’s two sides to the issue that are very illustrative and from people that I view as evidence-based and ‘reasoned’: Check out Mark Lynas’ take on labels and his argument for ‘transparency’: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/10/why-we-need-to-label-gmos/ Also, I like this post by my colleague Chris MacDonald on “Right to Know What I am Eating” on his blog “Food Ethics”: http://food-ethics.com/2010/09/28/the-right-to-know-what-im-eating/
I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.
Q.1 Why are people worried about GM foods? Are these concerns overhyped?
Safety seems to be the most quoted reason for people’s concerns over GMOs. But, these concerns (and the arguments) are often unscientific and unsubstantiated. So, yes, most of these concerns are overhyped and controversy is created where often none exists.
We live in a (first world) where we have the luxury (most of us, anyway) of not worrying where our next meal comes from. So, we seem to have more time to dwell on things and our relationship to food has evolved from one that was (at one time) wholly ‘functional’ to one that is more ‘aesthetic.’
We are also generationally and geographically removed from the farm. Only 2% of North America’s population live and work on farms. That’s a huge (cognitive) divide. And that’s a huge problem because that 2% is responsible for the food security of the other 98% plus others in the world. Almost a billion people every day fight to just get 300 calories a day. We are not only dealing with a urban-rural divide, we are dealing with a north-south divide where we are completely dissociated from what’s happening in less developed parts of the world.
Here’s the deal on GM foods and genetically engineered crops. The scientific consensus on genetically engineered crops and foodstuffs is overwhelming. They are as safe or safer than any other food stuffs on the market. Many, many studies attest to this (see this and this). They have been in our food system for almost twenty years and there are REPUTABLE and INDEPENDENT organizations from all over the world that have made statements that attest to the safety of GMOs and genetically engineered crops. The problem is is that one-off studies often come up that use anecdotes or ascribe causal links between GMOs and disease where there is only correlation, at best. These studies gain a great deal of traction in the media because they are “scary”… and those kind of headlines sell (check out an editorial piece I wrote in the Western Producer on this). And, make no mistake, they have political agendas driving them. Those that publish these kinds of studies do so to manipulate the media and the public. I find that unconscionable.
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How many times do we have to deal with the folly and fall-out of sub-standard science? In her letter titled “Future of Meat” dated October 24, 2013, J. MacPherson references the same ol’, same ol’ ill-reputed studies to challenge something that is no longer an issue: the safety of genetically engineered crops and food.
After eating three trillion servings of genetically modified foods, not so much as a tummy ache has been reported by anyone. Over 750 studies conducted over a span of 25+ years affirm the safety of genetically engineered foods and crops. Many of these are conducted by independent, public-sector scientists. We call this ‘scientific consensus.’
The Séralini, Carman and Krueger studies are each guilty of three or more of the following: 1) a poorly executed methodology (where correlation is used to imply causation, among other things); 2) weak statistical analyses; 3) poor use of controls; 4) inappropriate sample sizes; 5) spelling and grammar errors; 6) and the authors refuse to release data or methods so that other scientists can replicate the work. These missing or weak elements violate the basic tenets of ‘good science’ and standardized protocols that have been established for centuries.
But why do these same ol’, same ol’ studies keep getting regurgitated in the media and continue to pop up on the Internet complete with hype and ugly photos? The answer is two-part: 1) human cognitive habits’ and 2) our attachment to mobile technology and social media.
We are Internet junkies – referred to as ‘just in time’ users. Almost 70% of North Americans consult Google or social media platforms for information or to get answers to their questions. We are tapped in. Further complicating matters are our human cognitive habits. We are conspiratorial thinkers. If you think that the omniscient presence of mobile technology and access to cameras 24/7 would have conclusively settled questions about flying saucers, lake monsters, Bigfoot and ghosts, think again. We are also conformists and we always seek out our personal networks to ask questions and seek information that validates our beliefs or our ‘world views.’ We like to think in pictures and we have a habit of finding meaningful patterns in meaningless information. That’s why we see the ‘man in the moon’ and the Virgin Mary on pieces of toast. Finally, humans love a good (sometimes horrific) story. Storytelling is an important part of our social fabric. Think about it, before we could write, we have been telling stories as a way to illustrate simple moral lessons or to teach and learn. The only difference is that we don’t do it on cave walls anymore. We do it on the fast moving social media trains of Facebook, Twitter and LinkdIn.
In combination, our networking behaviour and our human cognitive habits leave us open to all kinds of misinformation. Science isn’t easy to understand and science certainly isn’t sexy. So, when studies conducted by the likes of Séralini, Carman and Krueger magically make it through the peer-review process, most of us that understand what ‘good science’ is are left scratching our heads in frustration. Make no mistake, these so-called ‘studies’ have political agendas driving them. They are designed, promoted and circulated in such a way that its feeds into our fears and our biases. The studies (and their authors) are highly provocative – nothing more. And, quite simply, there is no room in objective, evidence-based science for provocateurs.
Speaking of provocative – – – Did you know that the publication of the Séralini study in September of 2012 was neatly bundled with a well-promoted press conference, a book launch as well as a movie – all in the same week? This is ‘unheard of’ in reputable science circles. This suggests that Séralini had set out to “prove” something rather than to objectively “investigate” something (in ‘good science’, scientists pose a hypothesis and set out to disprove it). In advance of the publication, Séralini also asked journalists to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). This meant that journalists’ could not consult with any third party experts in order to report on the study in a responsible and balanced way. No self-respecting academic scientist would require an NDA. (Please note: health and food safety organizations the world over have discredited the Séralini study).
But let’s dig look at the peer-review process a bit closer. PubMed is a database of scientific studies (medical and other) that the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) maintains and operates. Publications and journals listed in that database meet important scientific criteria regarding research quality. The Carman study was published in the Journal of Organic Systems, which is not even recognized under PubMed (Mark Lynas talks about this on his blog). While the journal that published the Krueger study, on the other hand, operates under the umbrella of OMICS publishing group based out of India. The validity of the peer review process used by OMICS family of journals – since it was established in 2008 – has been questioned by many academics worldwide as well as the US government. The NIH no longer accepts OMICS publications for listing in PubMed.
These are all really important ‘red flags’ when we try to assess the validity of scientific studies. If these studies represented anything ground-breaking – something that legitimately challenged the ‘scientific consensus that exists out there – they would have been snapped up by higher calibre PubMed journals such as Science or Nature. Plain and simple.
If this is where we hold our expectations of science – like the quality of work produced in studies conducted by the Séralinis, Carmans and Kruegers of the world – then we are in serious trouble. I want fact and evidence-based information and ‘good’ science to inform policy – not someone’s agenda-motivated, fictionalized version of the science. If safety and value-add is the goal for our foodstuffs then, as a society, we should demand better than what Séralini, Carman and Kruger have to offer.
We cannot hold progressive and innovative science to such weak standards.
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From ‘I Smell a Rat’ to ‘When Pigs Fly’ – bad science makes it rounds
Outstanding Summary of the Seralini Study by J. Byrne
Other things of interest: Myles Power on the Pig Study (Carman etal).
INTRODUCTION TO THIS RE-BLOG OF “THE RIGHT TO KNOW…”
- Prop 37 was defeated November 2012 on the California ballot by a narrow margin. But there has been fall-out from this with GM labeling initiatives (introduction of bills/legislation) in many states in the US. One bill died in New York but another labeling law was passed in Connecticut. This issue is not going away. The impetus behind labeling of GMOs is “right to know.”
- In this blog post, Chris MacDonald, a Toronto-based ethicist, professor, speaker and consultant, discusses “right to know” and legal vs moral rights (dated September 2010). Thanks, Chris, for letting me post this to my blog. Very informative!
Other related post by Chris: Should Companies Label GM Foods?
- Chris MacDonald, Ph.D., is an educator, speaker, and consultant in the realm of business ethics. He teaches at the Ted Rogers School of Management, at Ryerson University in Toronto, where he is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program, at the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre.
- UPDATE #1 (June 4, 2013) You will recall my colleague from London that I mention in my original post. Well, he did some more sleuthing. He contacted an importer and queried him on labeling practice. Here’s the scoop:
- The Labels: I was wrong. These labels aren’t developed by the importers, they are actually designed and ordered by the retailer. In this case, Tesco. So, rather than there being a lack of consistency in labeling protocols on the part of importers (as I suggested), labeling protocols appear to be differentiated across retailers – even those within the same chain of retailers (Tesco). The whole process appears to be quite subjective.
- GMO label info: My colleague challenged the importer on the blatantly inaccurate information on the label. The importer’s response? “GM Wheat is being sold in the US.” And, after my colleague corrected him on this, he said: “Well, there is GM wheat growing in Oregon.” Yes, we know that. But a photo of the inaccurate label was circulating on social media (Pinterest) BEFORE the Oregon issue presented itself. Hmmm…
- The importer said that they are currently awaiting follow-up information from Kraft. Local trading Standards officers are also seeking clarification. I guess we will wait to see what happens.
- I will update this post as information arises. I think that there is one thing that we can all agree on: Ensuring standardization and efficacy of labeling regimes are good for the retailer, the importer, the food company and – most of all – the consumer.
- UPDATE # 2 (June 4,2013) CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER: Is there a black market in KD? In this report by MSN News, Lynne Galia, a spokesperson for Kraft Foods, made a statement yesterday (June 3) “…we don’t export Mac & Cheese to the UK and have no authorized distributor there…The company that has applied this sticker is not authorized by Kraft to sell our products. They are not a customer of Kraft. They are getting the product from someone else and reselling our product in the UK…” Kraft continues their investigations.
- Hmmm. The whole labeling ‘thing’ may be just secondary fall-out to these illegal shenanigans.
- UPDATE #3 (June 5, 2013): It appears that Food Babe got some publicity in the NY Times on this which won’t hurt her anti-Kraft campaign any. Also, we now know the name of the ‘mystery’ shopper that brought that original label to light: Flo Wrightson Cross, a student in north London. Flo loves KD too! ;o)
I am a huge fan Kraft Mac n’ Cheese (AKA ‘KD’). When I was young, broke and living on my own, it was a food ‘staple’. As a household, now, we probably consume only about 6 boxes per year. Times change. But KD doesn’t. I find that it still ‘hits the spot’ sometimes.
The other day, I saw a photo like this circulating on Pinterest with the headline “WARNING: look at what’s in your Kraft Mac n’ Cheese!
When I first saw the label, I thought it was total bunk; garbage. My judgement was based not only on the label content but also on what appeared to me to be a rather ‘amateurish’ label design. Hey, it was a fair assumption. I mean, how hard could it be to stop at Staples, pick up a pack of Avery labels and design/print labels with deceptive information? In terms of content, a first clue was that “macaroni” was spelled incorrectly (as “macroni”). The other red flag for me was the label’s “GMO declaration” – “made from genetically modified wheat.” WHAT?!? (I’ll get to the ‘wheat’ thing later).
After a bit of social media scanning, I found out that this label was on a package of KD that was imported from the US to the United Kingdom (UK). As I was not familiar with import and labeling regulations in the UK, I launched into several hours of research – scouring regulatory documents and scanning the websites of UK importers. Not to mention, I exchanged a flurry of emails with colleagues who are more ‘in the know’ about such things. I even managed to score a photo of another labeled box of KD from a colleague in London (below).
First, I wanted to compare what I knew to be a legitimate label on a package of KD (above, purchased by a trusted colleague) with one that had been circulating on social media. Summary below:
Label 1: As far as I can tell, the photo of this label was introduced to the Internet via the Food Babe website. The date that this particular box of KD was originally purchased is unknown. But Food Babe did publish another photo of a package of KD yesterday that appears to have the same format and content as the one pictured above. The photo also included the May 31, 2013 issue of The Times of London as a ‘time stamp’ (the photo was taken at a Tesco location in North London). The product importer was Innovative Bites Ltd.
Label 2: Photographed by a colleague on May 31, 2013, this label was on a package of KD that he purchased at a local Tesco retailer in London. The product importer was PS Foods Limited.
Note the differences. To illustrate these differences, I pulled together a table that outlines what is and isn’t included on the respective labels.
Allergen Information: Regulatory bodies in many countries in the world have labelling requirements for specific priority allergens (plus gluten sources / added sulphites) in foods (Canada, US, EU). Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (both of which are food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder) are known in the EU as Tartrazine (E102), and Sunset Yellow (E110) respectively. In a 2007 study, commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, hyperactivity in children was linked to artificial colorings and a food preservative. This prompted the European Parliament to pass a law in July 2008 requiring products containing food dyes in Europe to carry the warning “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” (as shown on Label 1, absent on Label 2).
GMOs: The EU (including the UK) has a very different political and regulatory approach to genetically engineered crops and GMOs than we do in North America. While mandatory labelling of GMOs isn’t required here in Canada (or the US), the European Commission requires that pre-packaged products consisting of or containing GMOs have labels that indicate so. As much as 70% of food in our grocery stores in North America is made with genetically modified ingredients (soy, canola, corn). Therefore an importer of a prepackaged product from the US (as in this case) may include “may contain GMOs” on the label for no other reason than to cover their butts.
But here’s the real kicker about Label 1. Label 1 states – definitively – that the product is “made from genetically modified wheat.” There has never been a genetically engineered wheat on the market. Never. Not anywhere in the world. So, even if Kraft wanted to make its product(s) with GE wheat, it couldn’t. The information on Label 1 is inaccurate and grossly misleading.
Ingredients: I couldn’t find a (credible, regulatory) document that outlined protocols for labeling imported prepackaged food in the UK. So, I will pose some possible reasons for why one of these labels had ingredients and the other didn’t.
Maybe it depends on the placement of the label. Label 2 was placed on the upper part of the side of the box. The (US) factory printed ingredient list was near the bottom so it wasn’t obscured. Maybe that’s why the ingredient list didn’t need to be repeated on the label. As for the other product (Label 1), it wasn’t photographed in full so I don’t really know where the label was placed. One thing that would justify a list of ingredients beyond the factory printed list (as in Label 1) would be a clarification of ingredients. You will recall earlier that I mentioned that the food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder are referred to differently in the UK (EU) than they are in North America. Including an edited ingredients list would be useful (and informative) in this case. (Related: see Rob Wallbridge’s post on his blog The Fanning Mill where he talks about interpretation and meaning of (ag-based) words in different parts of the world).
Note: ‘Best Before’ dates are included on Label 1 but not on Label 2.
Is safety an issue? In a word, NO.
Food dyes: Both Yellow 5 (Tartrazine (E102)) and Yellow 6 and (Sunset Yellow (E110)) have safety approval in the US (USDA/FDA), the EU (EFSA) and other jurisdictions in the world. A panel of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) experts met with the center for Science in the Public Interest in 2011 to consider relevant data on the possible association between artificial food colors and hyperactivity in children. Based upon the available evidence, the panel ruled that a causal link between food dyes and ADHD has not been established. They did, however, suggest that more research needed to be done. These food dyes (and Kraft) are still under fire. There are lobbying efforts underway to push the company to remove these additives from their product lines.
GM Wheat: No GE wheat varieties have been approved for commercial production in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Monsanto, however, was authorized to field test glyphosate tolerant wheat in 16 states from 1998 to 2005. Recently, glyphosate tolerant wheat was discovered in an Oregon field. APHIS has launched an official investigation (press release here). Check out the post at Biofortified “Get the scoop on GMO wheat in Oregon.” Karl Haro von Mogel provides some great links to resources there.
Needless to say, this recent discovery, in combination with the Kraft label issue, only serves to fuel the fire of controversy and raises questions about the safety of GE wheat. But the FDA reviewed this glyphosate tolerant wheat back in 2004 and determined it that there was no food safety risk associated with the crop variety.
So, what SHOULD we be concerned about?
The EU watchdog must be asleep. It appears that different UK importers (in this case, Innovative Bites Ltd (UK) and PS Foods Limited) attach different labels to meet requirements. More problematic, however, are the gross errors in labeling; from simple spelling errors, to omissions, to completely inaccurate information. The lack of consistency in content, format and structure of label information creates uncertainty and confusion. This does little to incite product confidence for the consumer. Another unfortunate by-product of this kind of ‘fuzzy’ labeling is that it provides the perfect opportunity for the ‘food police’ (a la Jayson Lusk) and the anti-GM movement to move in and work their own kind of ‘craft’. They can quickly spin stories (such as here and here) to further sway public opinion through misleading information.
As a consumer I want nutritional and other information about the food that I buy. But I want accurate and meaningful information. Don’t you?
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“Crowd-sourced Mythbusting” is a great thing! Please weigh in on the topic and share your knowledge, thoughts and opinion!