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Issues & Insights

The Labels On Your Food Lie

I&I Editorial

Everyone’s used the term “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” usually in attempting conversational wit. But few know any of the Seal’s history.

In the late 1930s, after nearly three decades of Good Housekeeping magazine’s testing household products for its readers, Washington aggressively sought to replace such private scrutinizing with public tests and approvals. The Federal Trade Commission accused the Hearst-owned publication of deceptiveness, ultimately forcing Good Housekeeping to soften the wording of its product endorsements.

It was a case of government seeking to increase people’s dependence on it. But all these years later there’s another Seal of Approval unquestionably being used with deceptive and politicized motives, in the war on culinary technology.

The “Non-GMO verified” label has, to some intimidated food manufacturers, become a near-necessity because they’re convinced that without it customers will shun their products, in fear of consuming genetically modified organisms with carcinogenic dangers like those of radiation or toxic chemicals. There are now many tens of thousands of products sporting the Non-GMO Project’s seal of approval.

Yet the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, the National Academy of Sciences, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization and other competent bodies vouch that genetically-modified foods pose no health hazard.

Still, the GMO Project’s crusade, according to a Wall Street Journal interview with its executive director, is to contract the market for GMO ingredients already available and stop the production of new biotech crops.

Cowed Into Buying The Butterfly

You would think businessmen would be hardheaded enough simply to fashion their own label announcing “guaranteed no genetically-modified ingredients” or the like, but it is testimony to the prevailing hysteria favoring organic alternatives to the perfectly harmless food staples in the typical supermarket that manufacturers will pay as much as thousands of dollars to the Non-GMO Project for the privilege of using its now-familiar butterfly stamp.

The Non-GMO Project may be a nonprofit, but it is a lucrative venture for its backers. In 2013 the organization boasted that “Sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products have gone from $0 in 2010 (when the label launched) to over $3.5 billion just three years later. Consumer concern about GMOs and demand for non-GMO products has [sic] made ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ one of the most sought-after labels in the natural products industry, and the market is responding strongly. We’ve gone from 194 verification program enrollment inquiries in the second quarter of 2012 to 797 inquiries during the same period this year (that’s more than a 300% increase!)”

Incorporated in 2007, the Non-GMO Project is backed by organic and natural food retailers, and associated with New Age organizations connected with Sixties counterculture. So it’s an odd pairing of the profit motive with hippie anti-corporate sentiment.

But it turns out their label is as much a lie as the fast-talking pitch of the sleaziest used car salesman trying to unload a lemon. Plant pathologist Steven Savage points out that “virtually all the foods we eat have been ‘genetically modified,’ and often in dramatic ways.” Sweet grapefruit varieties, for instance, “are a textbook example of how crops were genetically modified back in the 1960s and ‘70s using a method called ‘mutagenesis breeding.’”

“Basically, seeds (or in this case pieces of budwood) were exposed to gamma radiation in substantial doses,” Savage explains, “and then sifted through to find ones with mutations to their DNA that had desirable qualities. You don’t get much more ‘genetically modified’ than that!” Yet Savage recounts his disappointment at seeing a prominent brand of such grapefruit bearing the Non-GMO butterfly label.

Thousands of food-producing plants were modified in the same fashion all those decades ago. Apparently, it’s only the more-efficient, modern methods of genetic engineering that earn the ire of the Non-GMO fanatics.

According to Savage, most non-GMO labeling is just as much a lie — as are the pictures “of ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables stuck full of large hypodermic needles that are used in campaigns against ‘GMO food,’” images that “bear absolutely no resemblance to how plants are genetically engineered.”

Non-GMO Can Mean Less Healthy

Modern genetic engineering methods can, in fact, save food crops from being wiped out by disease, thus preventing major jumps in food prices. What’s more, earning the Non-GMO Verified label can even mean a food being required to become less healthy. Both Cheerios and Grape-Nuts actually had to get rid of vitamins to get the Non-GMO Project’s seal.

The new Cheerios “is certainly less nutritious,” University of Georgia crop science professor Wayne Parrott said. In fact, the only cheap method of mass-producing vitamins that doesn’t have some GMO element somewhere in the process is synthetically in the chemical laboratory. Does that really sound healthier?

Juxtapose these facts to the misleading statements on the Non-GMO Project’s website, such as: “none of the GMO traits currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now says claims of foods being non-GMO are incorrect if the foods are “incapable of being produced through genetic engineering,” like salt and water. The new acting FDA Commissioner since March, Ned Sharpless, is a medical scientist and cancer specialist with practical experience in genetic engineering. The coming weeks and months will reveal whether the Trump Administration is willing to enforce the FDA’s own stated principles and rip off all the labels that are misleading consumers about the safety of their food, and tricking them into needlessly spending more to eat.

— Written by Thomas McArdle


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7 comments

  • It’s not that I’m afraid of genetic engineered plants, per se. But I don’t want to eat plants loaded with glyphosate (Round Up), and the Non-GMO label is sometimes the best we can do. Most corn and soybeans are genetically engineered to be “Round Up Ready” so that they can survive being grown in soil that has been sprayed with this herbicide. Unfortunately, wheat and other grains and plants are NOT “Round Up Ready” and are sprayed on purpose to kill the plants at a uniform rate and hasten the harvest. So a Non-GMO label on these foods doesn’t protect us from ingesting glyphosate.

  • Knowledge is power. Read and learn before you eat. Many “organic” and non-GMO products are simply more expensive, not better for you.

    Get facts, not myths from cult web sites, and read the labels.

  • Don’t forget the worthless “kosher” certification we are all forced to subsidize as well

  • Please use genetically modified in its proper and intended context. Selective breeding to enhance qualities such as sugar content etc. are a far cry from the forced insertion of genes from an unrelated genus or classification. Failing to do so muddies the understanding of the general public and is an often used tactic by GMO developers precisely because of that fact.

    • You can take that up with Dr. Savage, the plant pathology Ph.D.: “exposed to gamma radiation in substantial doses…then sifted through to find ones with mutations to their DNA that had desirable qualities” sounds a far cry scarier.

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