Commentary: Rats—rats with huge, ugly tumors
Dr. Oz is a TV talk show host whose show (allegedly) focuses on health issues. But despite his credentials, he generally takes the tabloid approach to the issues. Just listen to how he describes genetic engineering in the introduction to a recent show on the “threat” of GMOs:
“The basic idea is to take a feature from one organism and you put it into another organism. In the future, scientists might be able to move genes from a fish that lives in cold water and put it into a tomato, so maybe that tomato can easily survive in the weather, especially if that weather is cold.”
That ought to tell you how “scientific” Dr. Oz’s is. On the recent segment, “Genetically Modified foods: Are they safe?” he brings on Dr. Robin Bernhoft, past president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, and Jeffrey Smith, renowned nut job author of “Genetic Roulette,” which claims that GMOs are responsible for a vast array of chronic diseases.
Of course, Bernhoft’s Wichita, Kan.-based academy is all about hardcore opposition to genetically engineered foods, including a manifesto calling for a moratorium on GM foods and immediate labeling of such foods.
Dr. Oz alludes to the extremism of his guests: “Because the things Jeffrey says are so controversial, nearly every scientist we [asked] to defend genetically modified foods said no to coming on the show, or they refused to share the stage with him. So today we are doing something we have never done before. After Jeffrey makes his points, he has to leave the stage before we can speak to the scientists in favor of genetically modified foods.”
That ought to tell anyone with common sense that these two guests are quacks. But of course, Dr. Oz soldiers on, allowing Smith to foam at the mouth about the “thousands of doctors who prescribe non-GMO diets,” patients “getting better from a variety of diseases very quickly,” and how when lab animals (and livestock) are fed GMOs, they’re “getting better from these same problems when they take GMOs out of the diet.”
Then it’s the good doctor’s turn, and he chimes in,“I agree with Jeff completely. There is an increase in incidence, not just in reflux but also in allergies, autoimmunity, asthma, high cholesterol—there’s a wide range of chronic illnesses.”
The good doctor then admits that “cause and effect is hard to prove.” (You think?) But he quickly adds, “If you take people off genetically modified foods, then things like reflux, type-2 diabetes, allergies improve and sometimes go away completely.”
Then the show goes to the money shot: Visuals of rats with huge, horrific tumors—which, by the way, should never be allowed to grow that large under scientific guidelines on lab animal welfare—and Smith claims that 80% of the rats eating GM foods got cancer—when in fact, any reputable scientist would note that the Sprague-Dawley strain of rats used in the study Smith referenced normally develops tumors in about 80% of the population.
Dr. Oz: “So Jeffrey, if these claims are true, how can it be this information is being ignored?”
Smith: “Well, the cover up started more than 20 years ago when the FDA’s own scientists repeatedly urged their superiors to require long-term study because they said these foods were dangerous, [creating] allergies, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems. But FDA ignored the science and now they [only] have short-term animal feeding studies, studies designed to avoid finding problems.”
Which is EXACTLY what Smith just used to bolster his claims: A short-term feeding study!
At this point, Dr. Oz escorts Smith and Bernhoft offstage and brings on Martina Newell-McCloughlin, an associate professor of plant pathology and co-director of the National Institutes of Health in Bimolecular Technology Training Program at the University of California-Davis., firing off the mandatory talk show challenge: “How do you respond to Jeffrey’s arguments?”
Newell-McCloughln offers a great answer: “Actually, we’ve been genetically modifying foods for thousands ofyears. Modern techniques are far more precise, far more predictable, far more controlled. In addition, [GMO foods] are more thoroughly tested than any food or process in history. There have been thousands of experiments, and I’ve been involved in some of those as an external reviewer.”
Then, the “hard-hitting question” from Dr. Oz: “Do you feed your kids genetically modified foods?”
Newell-McCloughlin: “My No. 1 concern is the safety of my family. No way am I going to feed them anything that isn’t safe and nutritious. In fact, I would probably choose genetically modified foods over other foods because I know they are safer [and] perhaps the most sustainable product system you can find out there.”
The real costs of labeling
Then, after treating that exchange as just another “he-said, she-said”—no bigdeal—the show quickly pivots to what Bernhoft and his allies are really after: mandatory GMO labeling.
Gary Hirshberg, a founder of the anti-GMO group Just Label It, gets to unleash his practiced rant: “I can think of hundreds of reasons [for GMO labeling]. Nurses are concerned about the increased amount of herbicides now being used. Religious groups are concerned about messing with God’s work. We have folks who just don’t trust big business. People feel they should have the right to know what’s in their food that, and by the way,citizens have in 50 other nations, including Russia and China.”
Dr. Oz then lobs a softball over the plate:“One of the big fears I’ve heard of labeling what’s genetically modified is the impact on our wallet.”
Hirshberg: “That is a diversionary tactic. Emory University has calculated that the full cost of GMO labeling is 73 cents per consumer. So this is a non-issue.”
At this point, somebody should have burst out laughing. Seventy three cents?? I don’t know how you arrive at the figure, but even if it were true, that’s $240 million a year. Hardly an insignificant cost.
Indeed, Dr. Oz’s next guest, Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal scientist at UC Davis, quickly quashes Hirshberg’s argument.
“They’ve estimated that Prop 37 [the California initiative requiring mandatory GMO labeling] is going to [add] $300 or $400 to a family’s yearly grocery bill,” Van Eenennaam replies. “The reason is that grocers are going to have to go through the hundreds of thousands of products and determine which have bioengineered ingredients, [which is] about 60% to 70% of processed foods.”
More blah, blah, blah arguing over the “actual costs,” then Dr. Oz zeroes in the real issue.
“Alison do you think genetically modified foods are safe?”
Dr. Van Eenennaam: “As a scientist I’ve looked at the data, and I believe that these foods are safe. I don’t want to have conventional foods cost more when people who want to avoid genetically engineered products can go ahead and buy organic if that’s what they chose to do.”
Provocative, right? Not if you’re hosting a talk show with an agenda. Even after that rebuttal, Dr. Oz closes the segment as follows:
“Thank you for your insights, Allison. [Looks to the camera] If what you heard today concerns you, what can you do about it? I’ll have that answer when we return.”
Narrator: “Coming up: What you can do to avoid genetically modified food.”
Some things never change.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.