Do We Have a Right to Know If Our Food Has Been Genetically Modified? → Washingtons Blog
Do We Have a Right to Know If Our Food Has Been Genetically Modified? - Washingtons Blog

Monday, October 4, 2010

Do We Have a Right to Know If Our Food Has Been Genetically Modified?

Painting by Anthony Freda:

The FDA is close to approving genetically modified (gm) salmon. See this and this.

We know that at least some genetically modified foods may harm the environment. See this.

And serious questions have been raised about whether some gm foods might increase allergies or cause other health problems in humans and other organisms. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

Indeed, as Mother Jones pointed out last week, gm salmon may itself increase allergies:

Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen called the company's food safety tests "woefully incomplete," and the group pointed out that the FDA approval panel is mostly comprised of GE [i.e. genetic engineering] cheerleaders, with no fish ecologists or allergists. Why's an allergist important? Because the company's own tests suggest that the new salmon could be much more allergenic than regular salmon.

In order to understand the allergy tests, a bit of backstory on how AquAdvantage salmon are made is necessary. First, genetic engineers create a "diploid" fish, meaning like people, it has two sets of chromosomes. Then, to make the final market product, they add genetic material from other fish and breed a new salmon with three sets of chromosomes—a "triploid" female that can't reproduce. AquaBounty researchers compared the allergenicity—or potential to cause an allergic reaction—of a control group of salmon to both the genetically engineered diploids and triploids. They found (PDF, see page 102) that the diploid salmon were 40 percent more allergenic than the control, while the triploid group was 19 percent more allergenic.

AquaBounty says that the triploids' allergenicity level wasn't statistically significant, and although the diploids' level is significant, it doesn't matter because only triploids will be sold. But Hansen of the Consumers Union finds a few problems with this argument. For starters, the test wasn't double blind, meaning the researchers knew which fish were part of which test group. Second, the sample size of triploid fish was tiny—only six fish in all. Third, although AquaBounty is going to try to turn all its market-bound fish into triploid sterile females, the process isn't perfect, and some 5 percent could end up as the more allergenic diploid. Especially scary when you consider that unlike the triploids, the diploids aren't sterile. So if they escaped, they could breed with wild salmon.

The FDA simply doesn't have enough information to determine whether AquaBounty's salmon are likely to cause more allergic reactions than their non-GE counterparts. But there is good reason to be concerned about the potential allergenicity of all GE foods, says Margaret Mellon, director of the scientist Union of Concerned Scientsts' Food and Environment Program. "You have this technology that allows you to essentially move proteins around from food to food," she says. "You can move a highly allergenic protein into a new food, and no one will know to avoid the new food."

Indeed, a 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who were allergic to Brazil nuts were also allergic to soy beans that had been implanted with a Brazil nut protein. There is also some evidence that even proteins don't usually cause allergies can become allergenic when they are moved to a new food. A 2005 Australian study found that mice who were fed peas containing a typically non-allergenic protein from kidney beans experienced allergic reactions.

Another worry is that potentially allergenic GE crops might "escape" into foods. In the late '90s, the pharmaceutical giant Aventis introduced StarLink, a genetically engineered variety of corn. StarLink was approved for sale in the US, but only for non-food uses, since it contained a potentially allergenic protein. But then, traces of it started turning up in food (most famously, Taco Bell taco shells), and 28 people claimed they had suffered allergic reactions to foods containing StarLink. Although the CDC later found no medical evidence that any of those people had an allergy to the corn, an EPA advisory panel acknowledged that the CDC's tests did "not eliminate StarLink...protein as a potential cause of allergic symptoms."

The bottom line: It's not that genetically engineered foods are inherently more allergenic than traditional foods, but transfering genes does make it more likely that allergens might pop up in unexpected places. "There can be a lot of unintended side effects when you do genetic modification, which means you have to test very carefully," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the watchdog group Food and Water Watch. "In the case of salmon, one test on six fish just seems very insufficient for something that will open the floodgates to other GE meat and fish."
Allergic reactions can - in a small percentage of people - be more severe than just a sniffle or stomach ache. Some people die from allergic reactions.

At least genetically modified salmon will be labeled as such, so people can avoid it if they wish. Right?


As the Washington Post notes:

The FDA says it cannot require a label on the genetically modified food once it determines that the altered fish is not "materially" different from other salmon - something agency scientists have said is true.

Perhaps more surprising, conventional food makers say the FDA has made it difficult for them to boast that their products do not contain genetically modified ingredients.

Unfortunately, stifling the ability of producers of traditional foods to tell consumers they are not using an additive is nothing new. For example, Monsanto has sued milk producers who labeled their product as not containing growth hormone.

Similarly, Scientific American notes that gm seed producers control research, so that independent scientists can't study the effects of gm:
Scientists must ask corporations for permission before publishing independent research on genetically modified crops.
Liberals and conservatives, progressives and libertarians should all be up in arms about this.

We have a right to know what we're eating.

Postscript: Farmed salmon contains less of the healthy Omega 3 fatty acids and more pollutants than wild salmon. See this and this. GM salmon will be farmed (unless it escapes into the ocean). So eating wild salmon may potentially be one way to avoid gm salmon, reduce exposure to pollutants, and increase healthy Omega 3s.

The reason that wild salmon has more Omega 3s than farmed salmon is that wild salmon eat Omega 3 rich foods. It is the same reason that grass-fed beef contains more Omega 3s than beef from cows fed corn, meat or other "modern" feeds. See this and this. If we change our subsidy structure, healthier food would be cost-competitive with junk food.

Eating Omega 3 rich foods can increase gray matter in adults and boost neurological development in children. Conversely, low dietary levels of Omega 3s in mothers can reduce their kids' IQ.

This is not entirely surprising, given that (1) our brains are about 60% fat, and (2) leading nutritionists say that humans evolved to consume alot of Omega 3 fatty acids in the wild game and fish which they ate (more), and that a low Omega 3 diet is a very new trend within the last 100 years or so


  1. The GM salmon case is an interesting one. I'm still waiting to see a good, unbiased scientific analysis of the FDA's report on the safety of the AquaBounty fish. As far as I can tell (and I'm not a scientist) the allergenicity thing is the only thing that seems dodgy.

    But I think we should be careful about asserting a "right to know what we're eating." There's an awful lot to know about any food product, and lots we could *want* to know. But nobody (I think) really believes we have the right to know *everything* about our food. We need a way of sorting through which food facts are sufficiently important that we have a right to them. I've started trying to sort through that issue, here:

    I also agree with you that we need to find ways for food manufacturers who *want* to label to do so clearly. The FDA does need to insist on clarity, of course, but it should be possible to be both clear and open.

    Chris MacDonald
    The Food Ethics Blog

  2. GMO Foods Failed Producing Healthy Food

  3. Doctors Warn Avoid Genetically Modified Food

  4. Jeffrey M. Smith, Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, is the leading spokesperson on the health dangers of GMOs. His first book, Seeds of Deception is the world's bestselling book on the subject. His second, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, identifies 65 risks of GMOs and demonstrates how superficial government approvals are not competent to find most of them. He invited the biotech industry to respond in writing with evidence to counter each risk, but correctly predicted that they would refuse, since they don't have the data to show that their products are safe. Spilling the Beans, the institute's monthly column, is available at The website also offers eater-friendly tips for avoiding GMOs at home and in restaurants. Contact American Academy of Environmental Medicine at (734) 213-4901;; .

  5. Top 6 Ways to Identify - Avoid GMO Foods
    Recent polls across the world have consistently shown that, if they had a choice, 90% of people would actively seek to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in their food.

    Unfortunately, GMOs are taking over our farmland so quickly, it is virtually impossible to avoid eating GM foods… unless you know what to look for:


    1. Look at the stickers on fruit – there is a PLU code with either 4 or 5 numbers. If your fruit’s label has 4 numbers, it is conventionally grown. 5 numbers starting with a 9 means it was organically grown, and 5 numbers starting with an 8 means GMO.

  6. Non-GMO Shopping Guide (PDF)

    How to Avoid GMOs in Restaurants

    17 Ways to Avoid GMO Food

    GreenMuze: How to Avoid GMOs

    Aaron’s Environmental: Organic Certifications, Labels, and What They Mean

    Top 5 Ways to Avoid GMOs in Your Food

  7. Long Term Ill Effects Of GM Foods On Humans
    One of the great mysteries surrounding the spread of GMO plants around the world since the first commercial crops were released in the early 1990’s in the USA and Argentina has been the absence of independent scientific studies of possible long-term effects of a diet of GMO plants on humans or even rats. Now it has come to light the real reason. The GMO agribusiness companies like Monsanto, BASF, Pioneer, Syngenta, and others prohibit independent research.

  8. GM - Experiment on the Masses
    Genetically Engineered Foods - An Experiment on the Masses
    In 2003, Jeffrey Smith’s Seeds of Deception was published. It exposes the dangers of untested and unregulated genetically engineered or modified (GE/GM) foods that most people in the USA eat every day with no knowledge of the potential health risks. Efforts to inform the public have been quashed, and reliable science has been buried.

  9. Your second line gives me pause, causing me to question some of your later assertions. You say we "know GM foods harm the environment," and link to a 1999 study purporting to butterfly injury, when 11 years later, we see no decline in monarchs. Your other link is to a story showing that Cry1Ab was found in a stream in Indiana. That story reports no evidence of harm, only of detection. Scientifically speaking (and common-sense speaking) those are two very different things. Evidence does not indicate harm. Making those broad allegations with that sort of evidence makes for a flimsy argument, at best.

  10. Nanotech Viruses In Food (Nodwells should eat lots of FrankenNano food; nothing alive can hurt the vacuum in his brain!)
    Agency Approves First Use of Viruses as a Food Additive

  11. GM Foods the Problem, Not the Solution
    JEW Monsanto world depopulation horrors!

  12. GM Crops Threaten Human Fertility & Health
    NOTE: GM crops destroy the land for at least 15 years and destroy natural foliage.

  13. Genes In GM Crops Jump The Species Barrier.
    Research by a leading German zoologist has shown that genes used to genetically modify crops can jump the species barrier, newspapers reported here on Sunday. A three-year study by Professor Hans-Heinrich Kaatz at the University of Jena found that the gene used to modify oil-seed rape had transferred to bacteria living inside honey bees. The findings will undermine claims by the biotech industry and supporters of GM foods that genes cannot spread.

  14. Monsanto - A Multinational Factory of Death
    Amazing Disgrace - Jew Monsanto Up To Its Old Dirty Tricks Again

  15. Scientist Warning of Health Hazards of Monsanto's Herbicide Receives Threats
    GRAIN: Seeds of Information, July 2009

    Monsanto Against Millions
    If you're talking about:
    Persecuting Small Family Farmers, Bovine Growth Hormone, PCBs, Agent Orange,
    Poisoning the Third World, Roundup Pesticide, Water Privatization, Genetically Engineered Crops, or Farm Bankruptcies, you're talking about the Monsanto Corporation.

  16. The customer is always right, no? If folks want to know which foods are made from GMO's, then let them.

  17. Two points: GM crops are being tested -- on us; in a generation or two, there will be plenty of evidence showing what risks they pose. As to their impact on the environment (in response to Holly above), Monsanto has engineered crops to be resistant to Roundup so farmers can douse the fields with Roundup and kill everything except the crops. Environmental problem: weeds are growing resistant to Roundup, which requires more and more applications of Roundup.

  18. Why is it that the government has no problem allowing foods (and even non-foods) to be stamped "kosher" but they don't feel it's necessary to inform us as to whether or not the food that we are consuming is genetically modified? I see a double standard here.

  19. I think we do, but not necessarily for any scaremongering reason about the safety of the food. But merely economic reasons.

    I think I should have the right to decide if i financially support the corporatisation of food and the 'owning' of our natural world.

    This is just another example of money being made for the few from the many by pure rent extraction.

    That is the real scandal you should be writing about. As above, I felt this article had some relatively weak arguments.

  20. I do wonder it too, that why is that Gov't has no problem allowing foods to stamped as 'kosher' even they feel it unnecessary to inform others?


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