Understanding GMOs – National Consumers League

92_gmo.jpgFew agricultural issues are as controversial and complex as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Tinkering with the genetics of food is bound to set off red flags for many, especially those who are concerned about environmental issues. It’s important, however, to consider many aspects: economics, health, policy, environment, regulation, and labeling are a handful of the most important aspects to consider when weighing GMO pros and cons.

Health is likely the most important concern to an American consumer. Is it safe to be eating GMOs? Evidence here is unclear, some proving theories that GMOs are harmful, others disproving them. As with any issue it’s important to approach evidence with an open mind making a decision based on which studies you find to be most accurate and representative. While it’s possible to see associations between the increase in corn DNA as well as the increase in various health issues, like obesity and autism, that doesn’t necessarily mean the two are connected. The same connections could be made between health issues and increases in other technologies like cell phones. Additionally, specific concerns about the creation of new allergens have been raised. Testing and controlling for known allergens from GMOs, is well developed but possible threats lie in the development of new, unknown allergens.

Environmental factors prove to be a point of contention for GMO stakeholders as well. The apparent increased use of herbicides is disconcerting to say the least. Upon further inspection, glyphosate is the most increased herbicide, many others have been decreased. Glyphosate is notably less harmful to humans than other herbicides, but it is so effective that it eliminates important biodiversity (i.e., insects and plants) on farms. Some good news is that overall insecticide use has decreased among GMOs. Some insects have already developed a resistance to some GE crops but scientists predict genetic engineering will continue to reduce the need for insecticides. Additionally, in some countries GMOs help with soil preservation by lending themselves to low and no till farming.

Patents prove to be an especially salient issue for farmers. GMO seeds that have been patented are more expensive and thus difficult for poorer farmers to obtain which puts undue financial strain on those farms. Labeling is perhaps the biggest issue in the news now. Washington State recent voted down a proposed bill to require the labeling of foods made with GMOs. It has been speculated that more of these bills will pop up in the near future, putting pressure on industry to voluntarily begin labeling or in some cases stop using GMOs altogether.

As the GMO issue continues to grow and change, it’s important for each of us to critically evaluate its components. An ever-increasing body of scientific evidence lends itself to our ability to make informed choices, an opportunity each of us should seize.


Understanding ‘sell by’ dates – National Consumers League

The amount of food wasted in America is disturbingly high. Around 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is thrown away unused every year due, in part, to confusing food date labeling. More than 90 percent of Americans have thrown out food prior to its actual expiration date. Recently, a push has been made to reduce the amount of food that grocery stores are disposing of by repurposing it in cheap prepared meals or donating it to food banks. At home, consumers can reduce food waste by learning the truth about “use by” date labeling.

According to a Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic study on waste associated with food date labeling, food dating emerged in the 1970s due to consumer demand. Americans were starting to produce less of their own food and purchasing more processed grocery store products, but there were no standards for indicating how long the food products could be safely consumed. Consumers pushed for a uniform, regulated food-dating system.

Unfortunately, food date labeling was never a priority to Congress, which failed to pass federally regulated guidelines indicating an expiration date for various foods. It was decided that food dating wasn’t an issue of public health and thus didn’t need to be federally regulated. Instead, states took this issue into their own hands, providing Americans with a patchwork quilt of laws across the United States that engaged dating terms such as “use by,” “best by,” and “sell by.” Today, food dating regulations exist mainly at the state level, with some at the local level, in 41 states. Baby formula remains the only federally-regulated food dated product because necessary nutrients and potency are lost as time progresses.

Not only are the current regulations confusing and incongruent, but their purpose is overwhelmingly misunderstood and assumed to be an “expiration date.” In reality, the purpose of food date labels is to ensure that products are eaten at their peak quality, not to determine when the product is no longer safe to consume. Therein originates the problem of food waste. It’s actually quite uncommon to get sick from foods that are past their use by/sell by dates, as it is not a measure of food safety but instead a measure of peak freshness. In most cases, smell and sight are good indicators that a food has turned. If you’re still not sure, the Internet has some great resources (like foodsafety.gov), which could aid in the decision-making process.

Both “use by” and “best by” dates are intended for consumer use to specify a time at which the peak freshness of a product begins to deteriorate. These dates say nothing about whether the food is safe to eat or not; they are created by the manufacturer strictly for food quality purposes. “Sell by” dates are a tool for manufacturers and sellers to determine proper turnover of a product. At one time, “sell by” dates were coded so the consumer didn’t know what the label meant, but when the movement for better labeling began in the 1970’s many grocers voluntarily adopted the practice of transparently labeling “sell by” dates because it was what consumers wanted.

Today “sell by” dates can prove to be more confusing than helpful, causing unnecessary food waste as many consumers assume foods past the “sell by” date have gone bad. A need for federally regulated food expiration dates still exists, but, in the meantime, consumers should know that their own senses and some light Internet research might be the best determinant of whether foods are fit to eat or if they really do need to be tossed.

Safety of food imports getting a boost – National Consumers League

Did you know that 20 percent of America’s food supply is imported from other countries, including half of our fresh fruit and 20 percent of the fresh vegetables we eat? Despite these significant numbers, the federal government has been, up until now, only inspecting 2 percent of these imports. According to new rules from the Food and Drug Administration, however, that is about to change.

Advocates at the National Consumers League (NCL) and other organizations concerned with the safety of the food supply are celebrating the recent proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for long-awaited import rules, a key component of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which President Obama signed into law in January 2011.

According to experts at Pew Charitable Trusts, food imported from other countries accounts for a disproportionately high percentage of foodborne illness in the United States. Eight of the 19 multistate foodborne illness outbreaks that have occurred since President Obama signed FSMA into law in January 2011 were linked to imported foods, including pomegranate seeds, tahini sesame paste, cucumbers, ricotta salata cheese, mangoes, raw tuna, pine nuts and papayas. That number also includes the current 9-state hepatitis A outbreak linked to pomegranate seeds imported from Turkey that has sickened 153 people, 66 of whom have been hospitalized.

Advocates see these rules as instrumental for creating a food safety system, which works to prevent — not just respond to –foodborne illness outbreaks. The Foreign Supply Verification rule will require importers to ensure foreign suppliers meet U.S. standards. The Accredited Third Party Certification will only further strengthen the safety audits and certifications for food imports. According to the FDA, the new rules will shift the regulatory system toward prevention within the supply chain, instead of relying heavily on FDA inspectors to catch problems at the border or port of entry.

Think foodborne illness is too rare to worry about? Think again. It might be more common than you think, with major newsworthy outbreaks happening quite regularly. Check out these most recent outbreaks, as reported by USA Today.

2013 Foodborne illness outbreaks in imports:

June 2013: Hepatitis A

  • Nine states
  • Source: Turkish pomegranates in a frozen berry mix
  • 153 ill, 66 hospitalized, no deaths

May 2013: Salmonella Montevideo, Salmonella Mbandaka

  • Nine states.
  • Source: Tahini sesame paste from Turkey.
  • 16 ill, one hospitalized, one death.

April 2013: Salmonella Saintpaul

  • 18 states
  • Source: Cucumbers from Mexico.
  • 84 ill, 17 hospitalized, no deaths.