Whole Foods Takes Half a Stab at Regulating GM Foods

In a bold move on Friday, Whole Foods Market announced that it will require all genetically modified (GM) products sold in its stores be labeled as GM products by 2018. While I tip my hat to the multinational corporation for essentially accomplishing what our defunct too-big-to-do-anything-right FDA couldn’t – namely protecting the public health – I must say Whole Foods could’ve done better and just banned distribution of GM foods altogether.

Before delving into the why, some background information is helpful for understanding how GM foods are on our shelves in the first place. Under the auspices of the FDA, genetically modified plants are regulated in the same manner as non-genetically modified plants. Essentially, if the end result of a GM food is “substantially equivalent” to the characteristics and composition of its non-GM counterpart, then the agency doesn’t require safety tests (or labeling) before the GM plant is introduced into the food system.

There are two problems with this methodology. First, it focuses on the end result and not the process of genetic modification, which negatively affects not just the human body, but also plant diversity and the ecosystem as a whole. Secondly, this method is reactive as opposed to proactive, meaning that only if a GM plant is tested (independently) and found to be so dissimilar to its non-GM counterpart will the FDA require a more comprehensive evaluation.

Genetically modified crops were first introduced to the U.S. food system nearly two decades ago. Today, more than 80% of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the processed foods sold in grocery stores contain GM ingredients. The biotech industry has repeatedly assured the agency that GM crops are no different than non-GM crops and, moreover, they enhance nutrition and increase crop yield by virtue of being more resistant to herbicides, insecticides, and drought.

But independent studies have shown that genetic modification alters the DNA, proteins and nutrients of the plant, which can lead to unexpected changes, such as elevated toxins or allergenic effects. One meta-analysis on mammals fed GM soy and maize indicated liver and kidney toxicity and a disturbance in their immune system cells. And in the few studies conducted on human volunteers, one found that GM soy reacted with the antibodies of people known to have Brazil nut allergies, suggesting GM foods may be allergenic while the other study found a significant level of an insecticidal protein in the blood supply of non-pregnant women and in the fetuses of pregnant women as well.

Not only do GM foods pose a danger to our health, they have also considerably disrupted crop diversity, which is rapidly disappearing as a result of genetic modification. Low genetic diversity makes more crops susceptible to diseases and pests. And the application of herbicides and insecticides does not necessarily protect plants because the increased resistance that is bred into plants is also bred into weeds, insects, and diseases. The short-term solution thus far has been to keep increasing the application of herbicides and pesticides, which is only creating super weeds and super bugs (in fact, there are at least ten species of weeds that are resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup Ready). What’s more, the over-application of pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers is poisoning the soil and water, which are vital to a healthy ecosystem.

If we continue to plant GM crops and continue to buy GM foods, we will perpetuate the harmful effects of genetic modification onto ourselves and onto the planet. So, while the decision by Whole Foods to require labeling of GM foods is a step in the right direction, the corporation could’ve done us all a favor and just altogether banned the sale of GM foods in its stores.

For a more in-depth analysis on genetically modified plants and their effects, visit the Center for Food Safety.


Book May Reveal Path To Prosecuting Food Industry

The anticipation of Michael Moss’s new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, released this week, is almost too much to bear for food law attorneys such as myself. The 14-page excerpt, which ran in last week’s New York Times Magazine, may have been a horrific read, but it was a most exciting horrific read. Why? Because Moss’s findings may be the golden ticket out of the nation’s rising obesity epidemic.

Despite the overwhelming evidence linking processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages to Type II diabetes, heart disease, and a whole host of other health problems, the food and beverage industries have, by and large, eluded consequences. They have successfully bought and marketed their way out of any responsibility or regulations. The dirty truth about these multibillion-dollar corporations has been known for years, even decades, but the proof has finally reared its ugly head.

Moss’s article is rich with guilty admissions from chief executives and top food scientists from the food and beverage industries. One page after another, we hear from confessors who can’t help but spill their heavily-processed, pesticide-latent GMO beans about the “conscious effort . . . to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive,” which reads like pleas for redemption and atonement for their past bad behavior.

These revelations excite us public health advocates because, if Moss has proof that the food industry knowingly and intentionally manufactures addictive foods and actively lies to the public, then the same bogus argument that big tobacco sold us years ago — that consumers are free to stop if they want to — is no longer tenable. Urging consumers to eat responsibly and to moderate their consumption is the current tactic utilized by the food and beverage industries as a means of transferring blame to the (supposedly) irresponsible eaters for their resulting health problems. This very argument is what has made the food and beverage industries so untouchable for the past quarter century. So, evidence that food science has removed the eater’s ability to effectively moderate consumption makes not only the public, but also the courts more receptive to holding these major corporations accountable for their actions. And a court victory would lead to monumental change in education, policy, and regulation of the food and beverage industries, which we would all benefit from.