Labeling and genetically engineered foods

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Over 70% of the processed foods in the United States contain at least one GE product. Unless stated otherwise on the label, you can assume foods containing corn, soy, or canola are genetically engineered because a high percentage of those crops are grown using GE technology. It is impossible to determine the difference by taste because the genes for flavor have not been altered. In fact, products such as high fructose corn syrup and corn oil are essentially the same as their non-GE counterparts.

In the U.S., labeling is regulated by the FDA and is based on the nutritional value of the food. By law a label must be truthful and not misleading. Genetically engineered products are only labeled as such if the nutritional value is different from conventional food or if the food contains an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present.

woman reading labelMany surveys have addressed the issue of labeling, but as with all surveys, the results have depended on how the questions were asked. One consumer survey done in Hawaii (Shehata, 2007) indicated that individuals wanted information about genetic engineering listed on food labels, but also showed that the respondents did not have much background knowledge about the topic. Arguments for or against labeling often focus on either safety or choice issues. Some individuals have objections to transgenic foods due to religious beliefs or concerns about consuming animal products (no products using animal DNA are being marketed).

Arguments against labeling focus on increased costs and creating unnecessary fears about a product that shows no increased safety risk. Labeling would require tracking and separation of crops leading to price increases. Many consumers do not prefer GE labeling if it affects costs (Raab, 2003). Also, such a large percentage of foods contain GE products that labeling may not be very helpful. For instance, someone who is concerned about allergies may not be concerned about products that contain no protein or GE DNA. Finally, treating GE products differently from other food products may give a message that concerns about biotechnology should receive greater attention than other food issues. Some would argue that it would be more important to identify products that use conventional pesticides or animal hormones.

Informed consumers do have choices. Consumers can buy products that are labeled "GE Free" or organic. Organic foods must be non-GE to meet organic certification requirements. Another option is to avoid processed foods containing products that are likely to be GE such as corn and soy. Papayas can be identified through the name of the variety being sold. Rainbow and SunUp papayas are GE while other varieties of papaya are not. Getting to know local food producers at farmer's markets provides another source of information about how produce is grown and supports the self-sustainability of the islands.


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