Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are present in many common products including breakfast cereals, chips, and infant formula—including some that carry misleading labels like "natural," according to a study released Tuesday by the nonprofit Consumer Reports.
Based on its findings, combined with the results of a survey (pdf) by the Consumer Reports National Research Center showing nearly three-quarters of all Americans seek to avoid GMOs when they shop, Consumer Reports is calling for mandatory labeling of GMOs in food and a ban on the meaningless "natural" label.
"Federal law already requires labeling that lets consumers know whether foods have been previously frozen, made from concentrate, pasteurized, or irradiated, and we believe the label should also say if food is genetically engineered," said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.
The nonprofit, which is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization, tested more than 80 different processed foods containing corn or soy—the two most widely grown GMO crops in the U.S.—between April and July 2014. It found that nearly all of the samples of products that did not make any non-GMO-related claim on the package did, in fact, contain substantial amounts of genetically modified corn or soy.
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The study also revealed that while the independently certified "Organic" and "Non-GMO Project Verified" labels are reliable, "no-GMO" or "non-GMO" claims made by a manufacturer have no standard definition, don’t require independent verification, and are therefore less trustworthy. In a letter (pdf) to the Federal Trade Commission on Monday, Consumer Reports asked the agency to investigate the non-GMO claims on packages of Xochitl Totopos de Maiz corn chips after finding several instances of genetically engineered corn in the product.
Most notably, although more than 60 percent of people in the Consumer Reports national survey said they believed that "natural" means that a product does not contain controversial ingredients, testing did not bear out that correlation. According to Consumer Reports, "virtually all of the samples we tested of products that made only a 'natural' claim did have a substantial amount of GMOs" (though some have since removed the claim or have become Non-GMO Project Verified).
"The confusing nature of this claim is just one reason we are asking the government to ban the use of 'natural' labels on food," says Urvashi Rangan, director of the safety and sustainability center at Consumer Reports.