Is Genetically Engineered Food Safe? Should “GE” Be on Food Labels?

cornDid you receive an email from the Environmental Working Group (EWG)? Did it ask you to sign a petition urging the government to require the labeling of GE foods?  Perhaps your initial response was, “Sure. Why NOT put that on the label?”  But wait a minute.  Guess how many supermarket products would need that label.  The answer is about 60-70%! (GE crops are widely found in soybeans, corn, and canola oil.) In most cases, we’re talking about a small amount of GE plant material in a product with many ingredients.  


Perhaps you hadn’t realized that you are probably consuming GE products.   What’s you’re response to this knowledge?  If you’re not certain, read on for information about the labeling issue, alternatives to package labeling, the government’s position on labeling, some benefits and problems related to genetic engineering, and, finally, the all-important question of safety. 


By the way, if you’re wondering what the difference is between the initials GE and GMO, the food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein offers this explanation: “The process is genetic engineering. The resulting product is a GMO.”


The Labeling Issue


Besides EWG, another pro-labeling Internet voice is the advocacy group CREDO Action. It recently sent out emails asking consumers to petition Walmart not to sell Monsanto’s new GMO sweet corn, which is not labeled GMO). The Monsanto corn is expected to be in stores this spring.  


Labeling has this obvious benefit: it would enable those who wish to avoid GMO products to do so. But most consumers probably don’t realize the extent to which the foods in our food supply contain ingredients derived from GE or GMO plants.


It should be emphasized that, since organic products cannot contain GE ingredients, buying organic guarantees avoiding GE even without any required labeling. However, since organic products tend to be more expensive than others, one can understand why consumers might want to know which nonorganic items do not contain GE products.


According to the Environmental Working Group, in some European countries, China, and Japan, GE products are labeled. Does that mean the U.S. should or will require it? Here are the opinions of our Advisory Board scientists:


Dr. Karin Allen:  “Where do you draw the line? Yes, you’d probably want to know whether the salmon you’re considering buying was altered so that it grew twice as fast as normal.  But what about these cases—a taco shell or a piece of licorice that contains (among many other ingredients) some GMO corn syrup? I believe this gray area is the main reason there has been resistance to the idea of GE labeling.”


Consider, for example, the situation with cheese.  Dr. Allen points this out: “Most of our cheese would have to be labeled because the rennet used to produce it is a GE product.” At one time, the only source of rennet was from the stomach lining of milk-fed calves, and these animals were kept in miserable conditions in tiny cages until it was time to slaughter them.  Animal welfare activists should applaud the creation of a bacterial GE product that has mostly replaced the rennet from calves, except in organic cheeses since organic foods cannot contain genetically altered ingredients.”


(As more of our Advisory Board scientists weigh in on this question of labeling, you’ll notice some recurring themes and a widespread implication that GE labeling is somewhat like opening a bag of worms—unnecessarily.)


Dr. Catherine Cutter: “It’s a matter of consumer preference.  But the organic label (on corn chips and so on) is enough to tell consumers that there are no GE ingredients in a product.” 


Dr. Timothy Bowser: “Ingredients should be listed on the label with extra information if food safety is an issue. Personally, I don’t think food safety is an issue for GE ingredients. Some people have very compelling reasons why they want to know if GE ingredients are in their foods, and these cases should be researched by government (or an independent group) and recommendations made. Where the funding will come from to pay for these studies is a big question. Furthermore, it will cost plenty to find, verify, and make GE ingredient information available.”


Dr. Clair Hicks: “Certainly a number of people want these items labeled.  However most regulators, government, and educators see this as a continuing process. Where does one draw the line between GM and plant breeding or gene-selected traits? If enough consumers want a GM label, then the government will have to make some very clear definitions of what a GM food is.  I think our definition of a GM food 15 years ago was different than it is today, and that definition will probably change in another 15 years.  As technology changes, so do the techniques used to make a GM food.”


“Over 90% of the hard cheeses in the U.S. are produced using a GM enzyme (chymosin) that enables us to put a better cheese in the marketplace.  To put a GM label on all cheese could really increase the cost.”


Dr. Joe Regenstein: “I don’t favor GE labeling. To answer various consumer questions, the information on labels could be increased endlessly, a horrendously expensive process.”


Alternatives to Labeling the Product GE


Food scientist Dr. J. Lynne Brown points out other ways to identify GE products for consumers besides putting this information on each package label: 


-“It can be placed on company websites.


-Cell phone apps can be developed to access this information.


-Alternatively, a company can simply declare on its web page that all its corn, soybeans, etc. are sourced from GE varieties. The company can explain that oils from these seeds are not likely to contain GE proteins, etc.


-If a complete list of foods with possible GE ingredients can be accessible via an app, the consumer could source that in the supermarket. Actually, a company doing this would probably win kudos from some consumer groups.”


The Government’s Current Position on GE foods


At present, the FDA does not require labels on genetically modified foods or foods with some genetically modified ingredient.  However, it does have some regulations related to GE products. 


Here are some examples:


-If a GE food is significantly different from its original counterpart so that the common name for it doesn’t adequately describe the new food, the name must be changed.


-If a bioengineered food has significantly different nutritional properties, its label must reflect that difference.


-If the new food contains an allergen that consumers would not expect to be there, the presence of that allergen must be listed on the label.


So far, no products sold in the U.S. have fallen into any of these three categories.


“The FDA has also approved voluntary GE labeling regulations. Companies can state voluntarily that a food contains GE ingredient x and can state why it was used,” says Dr. Brown.


Some Benefits of Genetic Engineering and Some Problems with It


Since the 1980s, GE corn and soybeans have been a part of the U.S. food system.  Here are just a few examples of the contributions made by GE:


-GE has made possible the production of corn that’s pest-resistant (not damaged by insects).


-GE has made possible the development of soybeans that are herbicide-resistant (so that the soybeans are not killed by herbicides).  Weeds can be killed easily, so less pesticide is needed.


-Golden rice (a GE product with added beta-carotene, which the human body can convert to Vitamin A) has the potential to save the eyesight of hundreds of thousands of children living in Southeast Asia and Africa.  Many children in areas where a dietary deficiency of vitamin A exists eat rice as the major component of their diet. Golden rice would be an easier, less expensive way to provide vitamin A than supplying these children with vitamins in pill form or adding more produce and meat to their meals. Golden rice, which was developed as a humanitarian tool, is still fighting regulatory hurdles.


-The first drought-resistant GMOs are likely to be approved in the near future, says Dr. Regenstein.


Long-term, GE could help solve the problem of how to feed an ever-expanding world population. However, there remain some scientific, economic, environmental problems and ethical concerns related to altering the genetic make-up of plants and animals.  Dealing with these extensively is beyond the scope of this article, but here are several examples suggested by Dr. Brown:


-The extensive use of the herbicide RoundUp with crops that were genetically engineered to resist this herbicide has generated many types of RoundUp-resistant weeds. Farmers are now applying other pesticides to handle these resistant weeds, increasing the pesticide burden on these crops. Originally, RoundUp-ready seeds were to help reduce the pesticide burden.


-Crops genetically engineered to express bacillus thuringiensis (bt) have also produced bt- resistant insects, making the use of these GE seeds useless in some areas.


-Pollen drift from GE crops is threatening the GE free status of organic farmers.


-The methods of enforcing continued purchase of GE seed by some GE seed producers have ruined the seed-saving business and some farm enterprises in the Midwest.


The Safety Question


It’s been jokingly called “Frankenfood,” but what is it really? Food and Nutrition (a web magazine for the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals) contains a definition and a defense of GE. Here’s the definition: “Genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified (GM) foods contain an ingredient whose DNA has been altered via recombinant DNA technology.” The article goes on to say this: “The World Health Organization asserts that there’s no likely health risk associated with consuming genetically engineered foods.”


However, that answer—no likely health risk—leaves room for doubt and worry.  We asked Dr. Lynne Brown to expand upon this point, and here’s her response: “Some research suggests that genetic engineering may have some harmful effects upon the plants themselves. But most U.S. scientists discount research that suggests any harm to humans or animals because it is often done in countries where, in the opinion of U.S. scientists, the standards of research are not as high as in the U.S. There is little research done in the U.S. on this question because it would be very hard to find funding for it. Many scientists who sit on grant review boards have concluded there is no harm to humans, so such research is not high priority for funding. In addition, experiments to monitor long-term, low-dose effects would be done using animals, and there are always problems transferring results from animals to humans. Thus, the question of the safety of long-term consumption is still not answered.”


Dr. Regenstein points this out: “If you have a GMO corn plant, if you eat kernel corn or edame soy, you are eating everything; the genetic DNA material that was “engineered” is part of what you are eating. If you eat cornstarch or soy lecithin or soy oil, you are eating a purified material from which the DNA was removed. In all likelihood, the product itself has not changed.”


So how scared should we be about eating GE foods? Our site’s cheese expert, Dr. Hicks, is not the least bit afraid.  Here’s what he says: ”I eat GM cheese daily.  I am sure I eat GM corn daily along with food that contains GM soy products.  Does it bother me?  Not at all. If I like the product, I eat it.” 


To read the following article, “GE Salmon—Will It, Should It get FDA approval?”, click here:


To read a recent New York Times article on this controversial matter, click here:



Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D.  Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


J. Lynne Brown, Ph.D., R.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science; nutrition specialist for the PSU Cooperative Extension system  “Labeling Laws for GM Foods 


A Consumer Guide to Genetically Engineered Salmon by J. Lynne Brown,   Ph.D., R.D,  Penn  State, College of Agricultural Sciences


Wikipedia “Genetically modified food” “Vitamin A Deficiency-Related Disorders (VADD) “8 Tips to Navigating EWG’s 2011 ‘Dirty Dozen’ List” “Tell the FDA to label genetically engineered foods! “Tell Walmart: Reject Monsanto’s GMO sweet corn”


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