It is an ordinary supermarket with ordinary food --- a shopper's bounty of cereals, canned foods and condiments. But Andrew Stocklinski --- Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry, former professor at the University of Georgia, former researcher for a major drug company and a self-made organic farmer --- is no ordinary shopper.
He's patrolling the front lines of a looming battle over what America eats.
Stocklinski, a Watkinsville resident, shakes his head sadly as he pulls items off the shelf of the chain supermarket where he often shops so he can study the fine print of package labels. There are strawberry preserves with corn starch, potato chips with cottonseed oil and baby formula with soy protein. Over in the freezer case, there's a seafood sandwich spread with soybean oil and hamburger patties with textured soy.
His eyes rove the labels on double fudge brownies, dill pickles, peanut butter, a bag of bagels and berry punch. They all contain ingredients derived from corn, soybeans, cotton or canola. And Stocklinski said that means any of them could contain traces of genetically modified material.
Safeway has a close relationship with its suppliers. If they tell them they won't accept GM foods, the suppliers, and the food companies themselves, will respond. They can do it if they want to.
"Genetic engineering" may conjure images of exotic cures for cancer, man-made strains of anthrax and human cloning. But the most widespread use of genetic engineering is as familiar as the farm --- and as close as the supermarket.
Since the first commercial modified crops were introduced six years ago, plantings have soared. This year, GM crops, as they are known in the food industry, will be growing on more than one out of every four acres of U.S. cropland. Come fall, farmers will harvest 90 million acres of transgenic cotton, corn, soybeans and other crops.
How much of it gets to the supermarket, and in what form, is a more elusive statistic.
"All you can say is that a lot of these processed foods are suspect," said Stocklinski, gesturing with a box of corn dogs. "There is no way any shopper can tell for certain whether genetically modified material is present in any of these products. There's nothing on the label to tell you, so all we can do is make an educated guess."
Consumer groups estimate that 50 percent to 70 percent of all processed foods sold in America contain traces of genetically modified material.
The calculation is admittedly a crude one. This year, 74 percent of the U.S. soybean crop will be genetically modified. So will 71 percent of cotton, 32 percent of corn and 61 percent of canola. Those crops are ingredients in the starches, sweeteners, syrups and oils found in thousands of processed foods.
But genetic engineering plays a role in other foods, too. About half the papayas from Hawaii are engineered to resist a papaya virus. Most hard cheeses are manufactured with a genetically modified yeast that takes the place of enzymes from calves' stomachs. Most milk sold in the United States is produced with the help of a genetically modified growth hormone, which is injected into lactating cows to boost milk production.
Health risks unknown
When it comes to the health effects of genetically modified foods, the jury is still out. Evidence is sketchy. Suspicions, especially among food safety groups, are abundant.
Experts say modified foods are too new for long-term health effects to have appeared in people who eat them. The American Medical Association acknowledges that foreign genes introduced into foods are a potential source of exotic allergens, antibiotic resistance or other, unknown effects on human health. But so far, the AMA said, there has been "no overt adverse effects on human health."
As the use of genetically modified crops has soared, however, many countries --- including China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and members of the European Union --- have insisted that, in the absence of definitive knowledge, consumers should at least be able to decide what they eat. Dozens of countries now require that any foods with significant levels of modified material must say so on the package.
The United States does not --- even though U.S. grown crops constitute 80 percent of the world's transgenic crops. As American farmers have rushed to embrace such crops, the battle over what America will eat is shifting from the fields to supermarkets and corporate boardrooms.
Several recent opinion polls show most Americans know little --- and on many issues appear to be evenly divided over the benefits and risks of genetically engineered food. But the polls clearly show 75 percent or more of U.S. consumers want more information about those foods --- and want it on the food they buy.
They aren't likely to get it any time soon. The Food and Drug Administration has decided not to require labeling of currently available modified foods on the grounds they are "substantially equivalent" to conventional foods.
Food manufacturers adamantly oppose mandatory labeling. "Such requirements could impose substantial costs on consumers without any added benefit," said Gene Grabowski, vice president of Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents most of the major food and beverage companies in the country.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, whose department includes the FDA, is more blunt. He said labels "would only frighten consumers and play into the hands of those who exploit fear."
The FDA's response has been to roll out a voluntary labeling policy that allows manufacturers to address the modified content of their food on the package if they want to.
Most major grocery chains have organic food sections where items certified as organic are supposed to be free of genetically modified ingredients. Health food stores and a few grocery chains --- such as Texas-based Whole Foods Market --- have taken pains to assure they sell food that is free of transgenic ingredients.
Most foods in most stores, however, make no mention of the matter.
"The current system does not provide consumers with the information they desire," said Gregory Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Manufacturers fear, with good reason, that they will lose customers if a label declares the presence of a genetically engineered ingredient." The result, he said, will be "a few products labeling that they do not contain such ingredients and virtually no products stating that they do."
In fact, some organic food companies touting products as "GM free" or "not genetically modified" have received stern warnings from the FDA that the claims are misleading. "Free," the FDA said, is virtually impossible to verify. And the agency said "genetically modified" is a term that applies to conventional plant breeding, too.
Many organic food suppliers take great care to assure their products do not contain modified ingredients and say so on their packaging. The FDA, however, wants them to use what it says are more accurate descriptions such as "We do not use ingredients produced using biotechnology" and "not genetically engineered."
Stores take vows
There's more to the controversy than splitting hairs over semantics.
Supermarkets are increasingly the targets of environmental groups that oppose genetically modified foods. Pressured by Greenpeace and its customers, Trader Joe's, a California-based chain with 200 grocery stores in 15 states, last year agreed to gradually remove all modified foods from its shelves. The company told its suppliers it would buy their products only if they are free of such ingredients.
Buoyed by that victory, Greenpeace this year is waging a similar campaign against Safeway, the nation's third-largest supermarket chain. "Safeway has a close relationship with its suppliers," said Greenpeace spokeswoman Kimberly Wilson. "If they tell them they won't accept GM foods, the suppliers, and the food companies themselves, will respond. They can do it if they want to."
So far, Safeway isn't buying the idea. Spokesman Brian Dowling said the grocer relies on the federal government to set food safety standards. "We, the food industry collectively, find no reason to alter product selection," he said.
But in an industry where a medium-size food manufacturer may have more than 1,000 suppliers and over 8,000 ingredients flowing though processing plants making everything from potato chips to baby formula, that is no easy task.
To a limited extent, however, the food industry already uses "identity preservation" of ingredients, for kosher and organic foods. And although segregating millions of tons of corn, soybeans and other crops would be a huge task, international trade already is forcing the industry to track modified crops and products --- or suffer the consequences
China, which imports $1 billion worth of U.S. soybeans a year, halted imports of soybeans for three months this year because the beans didn't meet its new standards for labeling. With differences now ironed out, trade has resumed, but the impasse underscores the need to identify modified products properly. Brazil has been making inroads into U.S. soy exports to Europe because it doesn't allow modified crops.
Failures to segregate such foods can be costly. When Japanese inspectors found unapproved modified ingredients in a package of potato snacks, dozens of companies had to recall their products. And when unauthorized modified ingredients from the Starlink corn, engineered to produce a pesticidal protein, were found in tortillas and other corn products in the United States, more than 300 products were recalled nationwide.
The Monsanto Co., which controls the technology used in producing most modified commercial crops, said this spring that traces of unapproved modified canola --- a variety that never had been intended for commercialization --- had somehow slipped into the market. The Center for Food Safety, a Washington public policy group, responded by asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take criminal action against the company for "genetic pollution of our food supply."
Food experts split
Some segments of the food industry are trying to stop any controversy before it occurs. McDonald's has warned potato growers that it won't buy modified spuds for its french fries. Starbucks has vowed not to buy modified coffees or teas if they ever are developed commercially. Hershey Foods has told sugar beet growers to forget about trying to sell the candy company any sugar made from modified beets.
"It isn't because we have a safety problem," said Hershey Foods spokesman John Long. "We wanted to delay this until the issue related to public perception of GM crops has been fully resolved."
The debate, however, seems certain to intensify. Monsanto has developed genetically modified wheat that it had planned to start selling next year. The company said the new wheat, engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup, would increase farmers' yield.
Wheat, however, is one of the world's oldest crops and --- in many parts of the world, people tend to hold "the staff of life" in higher regard than cornmeal and soy protein. As word of the new wheat spread, buyers from Egypt to Japan have warned U.S. exporters their customers don't want it and won't buy it. Two-thirds of Canada's export markets have said they don't want it.
Ripples of that reaction have spread rapidly up the food chain. Half of all U.S. wheat is exported, and the prospect of roiling a $3.5 billion market has been sending shivers of concern through America's amber waves of grain.
U.S. Wheat Associates, which promotes wheat exports abroad, said that without worldwide acceptance of the technology, genetically modified wheat would hurt U.S. wheat exports more than it helps them. The North Dakota Wheat Commission has said it isn't ready for modified wheat.
In the face of such sentiment, for acceptance, Monsanto has delayed introduction of the new wheat until at least 2005. The company said more time is needed to test the new wheat strains and to build up seed stocks. Judging by the gathering storm, it may also need time to sell the new wheat --- at home and abroad.
Disagreements over the impact of modified crops on human health, the environment and international trade already divide public policymakers --- as well as the experts who advise them.
Earlier this year, more than 3,000 scientists, including Nobel peace laureate Norman Borlaug, the father of the "green revolution," which brought self-sufficiency in food to such countries as India, endorsed genetic engineering as a "powerful and safe means" to help feed the world's growing population. In all, 19 Nobel Prize winners signed the declaration.
But it is an issue on which not even Nobel winners can agree. George Wald, Harvard biologist and Nobel laureate in medicine, calls genetic manipulation the largest ethical problem science has faced. "Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all we can about nature," he said. "Restructuring nature was not part of that bargain."
Despite tacit acceptance of "invisible" modified ingredients such as soy protein, corn starch and canola oil in processed foods, consumers have yet to play much of a role in the controversy. But that could change as gene engineers turn their attention to more dramatic fare --- genetically modified salmon, bananas with built-in vaccines, corn that produces industrial chemicals, nicotine-free tobacco and cows that give silk instead of milk.
ATTITUDES ABOUT GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS
Americans have limited knowledge of modified foods, but a strong majority would at least have those foods labeled, even though the Food and Drug Administration doesn't require it.
44 percent have heard some or a great deal about such foods.
54 percent have heard nothing or very little.
2 percent don't know.
62 percent say they have not eaten modified foods.
19 percent say they have.
19 percent don't know.
58 percent oppose the introduction of modified foods into the food supply.
26 percent favor their introduction.
16 percent are undecided.
65 percent favor continued research on such foods.
26 percent oppose it.
9 percent don't know.
75 percent want to know whether their food has been genetically altered.
21 percent say it's not important.
4 percent don't know.
Source: March 2001 poll of 1,001 Americans, conducted by the Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
© 2002 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution