October, 2000

From the Editor

GMO Expectations

The basic problem with the way the food industry addresses Genetically Modified Organisms – GMOs in the popular parlance – is that those organizations with the resources – food manufacturers and retail and restaurant chains – don’t really care to educate the public on these issues, and those that do care – the agricultural science community and the seed business – just don’t have the resources or the consumer savvy. After all, there is much more spent advertising, say soft drinks, every year than is spent on corn seed.

And we see the results of this in Kraft’s quickness to drop on its sword and withdraw from the market millions and millions of taco shells marketed under the Taco Bell name.

The crime committed by these taco shells? Well, it seems that, at the very worst, GMO corn, by the variety known as “StarLink,” may have been present in a concentration of about 1 percent. Now, StarLink has been around for three years and has approval for use as both animal feed and in the production of ethanol. Yet it has not been approved for human consumption.

The difference between StarLink and other corns fully approved for human consumption is only one protein: Cry9c. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that this protein resembles a human allergen. It is a subject for further examination. It is, however, important to remember that this is what we are talking about: a corn present in concentrations of 1 percent, which is 99 percent identical to fully approved corn.

No corn is treated as a dangerous substance, so almost certainly this is not the first time some of this widely used corn has slipped into the food supply and, in these low concentrations, any possible harm is, to put it generously, theoretical.

Yet the food industry doesn’t say this because contemporary public relation is built around the notion that food companies have no particular responsibility for public education. It is cheaper and easier to accept blame, promise to never do it again and urge more government regulation than to do the hard work of educating consumers about the reality of food safety.

The truth is that there are all kinds of impurities in food. In corn meal, which is basically what a taco shell is made of, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has absolutely no problem with some impurities. Holman W. Jenkins wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal pointing this out: FDA regulations state that for every 50 grams of corn meal, it is permissible to have one “whole insect,” 50 insect fragments, two rodent hairs or one “rodent excreta fragment.”

But neither Kraft nor Taco Bell thought it desirable to point his out. The prudent decision was made to simply get past the current controversy.

That is, in many ways, a shame. First of all, the attention to GMOs as a food adulteration issue detracts from real issues such as GMOs crossbreeding with wild plants and the possibility of pests growing resistant to various chemicals.

More generally, food adulteration, which is rarely a public health concern, detracts from attention to real food safety issues such as bacterial contamination with living organisms like E. coli.

In a sense you can’t blame food manufacturers, retailers or restaurants. They would like to just sell food and only work with accepted ingredients. They don’t care if the corn is GMO-free or not; they just don’t want their business disrupted by protests and health fears, etc.

Unfortunately, though, these types of events are among the few occasions during which consumers are paying attention to the food supply. If the industry doesn’t step up to the plate and seize the educational moment, the consumers will develop more and more unrealistic expectations about the food supply.

After all, if a taco shell made of corn can be contaminated with, well, corn, and the risk is such that this justifies throwing away millions of dollars in food, well, surely next it will be a pesticide that gets people up in arms. Then one day it will be one of those rat hairs or insects or another impurity in food that will attract attention. And the public will expect and demand – and legislators will legislate – increasingly difficult and unrealistic standards on the industry.

And when the industry howls, nobody will hear the words, because the industry didn’t speak clearly when the people were actually listening.  DB