Commentary: Barking up the wrong tree

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Along with death, taxes and endless political gridlock, another of life’s certainties seems to be a never-ending activist push for labeling of genetically engineered food ingredients.

Every week, another group, another campaign emerges, each of them designed to convince Americans that the food products they’ve been happily consuming for the past decade or so are deceptive, dangerous and deadly.

For example, the Environmental Working Group, which used to focus on big-picture issues like resource conservation and pollution, is now whining regularly about the “horrors” of GMOs. Their latest online pitch (for contributions, naturally), states that, “Our research team has worked exhaustively to create an informative guide to [GMOs]. If you want to know why GMO food labeling matters, look no further than field corn (sic) and soybeans — some 90 percent of U.S.-grown corn is genetically engineered and about 93 percent of soybeans.”

Of course, that statement begs the question: If GMOs are so dangerous — and 90+ percent of the foods made from corn and soy come from genetically engineered crops — then why haven’t most of us dropped dead yet?

Instead, EWG’s appeal goes in another, very predictable direction: “Donate $10 or more before midnight Friday, and we’ll send you our Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food. We can only continue our important research with your support.”

“Important research” usually translates to “continuous fund-raising.”

Likewise, efforts to put statewide ballot measures mandating GMO labeling in front of voters in selected states continues in full force, despite recent defeats in California and Washington. Sooner or later one of those referenda is going to pass and then the floodgates will open.

Deep thoughts — and dead wrong

So, being the deep thinker that I am, I started to wonder: Would it possible to “road test” voluntary GMO food labeling without the potential backlash most food industry observers predict would occur if one or more manufacturers began using statements such as “Enhanced with bio-engineered nutrients” on their packaging? Maybe that’s possible, I was thinking, if the category was one that didn’t directly impact human health.

Such as pet foods, which are made with numerous ingredients derived from corn and soy.

Boy, was I wrong — about as wrong as the gamblers who bets millions (hello, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.) on the Denver Broncos to defeat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

That’s because the advertising pitch to pet owners is even more over the top than the taglines and branding messages found on the food products we purchase for ourselves.

You think “natural” is a highly leveraged label claim in supermarket aisles devoted to center-of-the-plate perishables, ready-to-eat entrees and microwaveable convenience items? Try strolling down the pet foods aisle at any upscale grocery store. There, such positioning is way over the top.

Here’s but one example, from NUTRO brand dog food, specifically its Natural Choice line (For Sensitive Skin and Stomach). The packaging on the company’s Venison Meal and Whole Brown Rice Formula — and we should all be eating so healthy — states that, “When it comes to your dog’s diet, they deserve the best natural dog food. At The Nutro Company, we believe the best natural ingredients make the best natural dog foods. NUTRO® Natural Dog Food is carefully made with a premium selection of natural ingredients fortified with essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.”

Did we mention “natural?”

That’s just one example of literally dozens. Obviously, baby foods are branded and labeled to appeal to the moms who are doing the purchasing, hence the attempt at culinary sophistication with choices such as Pureed Pumpkin-Apple Blend, and Peach-Apricot Museli and Beef Carrots & Corn Country Dinner.

Babies or toddlers just open their mouths and eat. They wouldn’t know a Country Dinner from a Bistro Buffet no matter what the jar says. But their moms want to believe they’re providing their loves ones with something a cut above “mashed mush.”

Dogs and cats, if they could communicate their food preferences, would demand meat, and lots of it. Anyone who’s owned either of those animals doesn’t have to run a taste test to figure out Fido or Fluffy’s preferred meal.

But with pet food, although the ingredient statement lists “beef, chicken, or turkey”, they’re formulated with large amounts of added vegetable starch and protein, ie, corn and soy. They’re advertised as delicious, healthful servings of fresh meat and poultry, but they contain lots of GMO ingredients.

However, it would be even more problematic to announce that someone’s beloved pet, who generally sleeps on the furniture, begs at the dinner table and gets showered with all kinds of snacks and treats and toys, is consuming genetically engineered food.

I still say the food industry needs to test market voluntary GMO labeling, and do it on their terms, before some state starts requiring them to follow a proscriptive mandate that would be way worse.

But I must admit that my bright idea to launch such an initiative in the pet foods category is, sadly, a bad idea, a poor choice and absolutely the wrong place to start.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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kansas  |  February, 26, 2014 at 09:00 AM

Another good piece Mr. Murphy. Thanks! Perhaps we should all write to EWG and offer to send them $20, if they can answer the question you posed as to why we haven't all dropped dead from those evil GMOs already? Would be fun to see their answer.

The Shark    
Pennsylvania  |  February, 27, 2014 at 08:34 AM

'Round here, the deer enjoy including corn in their grazing "ration"; helping themselves from field in the area. Wonder if the folks at NUTRO are aware of what their source of venison meal is consuming... Great editorial, Mr. Murphy - thanks for raising good questions and stimulating the thinking process.

Bob Strasner    
Mount Hope, Kansas  |  February, 27, 2014 at 11:15 AM

As a seller of GMO products and a crop consultant it is my intention to poison the entire planet so I no longer have anyone to sell my product to including my family. These fools continue to amaze and confound me with their ignorance of the facts laid in front of them. The World Health Orginization has even come out with admission that there are no health consequences with the consumption of GM foods. Oh, I forgot, they are an underground arm of Monsanto. I get so tired of lighting a fire under these mules that I have come to the conclusion that science is only believable to them if it fits their agenda. Thank you Mr. Murphy as I feel we have sat in the corner long enough letting these people beat our industry down. Time to get proactive and not only in the labeling business.

Iowa  |  February, 27, 2014 at 03:59 PM

Mr. Strasner, There is a portion of the anti-GMO people who probably are environmental extremists who oppose any biotech in ag. However a great many of these people who are opposed to GMOs are neither fools nor mules. There are many very intelligent people,highly educated in a variety of life sciences who are questioning our rush into this technology. One thing besides just the GMO plant is the enormous use of glyphosate on our crops and now sweet corn, and the push to get more of the vegetables we eat resistant to glyphosate so it can be used on them. We all know that a little glyphosate at one time will not hurt us-but what about being exposed to low levels of glyphosate over several years? That is what is worrisome to a lot of people. No one,not Monsanto, not the USDA, not the FDA, nor the World Health Organization has ever done the science. Glyphosate binds to trace minerals in our food to make them unavailable. Glyphosate is also a broad-spectrum antibiotic, and has been patented as such by Monsanto. The trouble with that is that it easily kills the beneficial bacteria that we all have and need in our intestines, but does not kill pathogens like Salmonella and Clostridium. These beneficial bacteria produce compounds that are necessary for normal central nervous system development and maintenance. The Chinese have shown that glyphosate can cause neuron lesions similar to Parkinsions disease. Look what the rates of autism and Alzheimer's disease have done in the last 15-20 years. Is glyphosate playing a role?-maybe not but we seem to be poisoning ourselves with something. Glyphosate can be found in human urine-and not just farm people,so we are getting it from somewhere.

Bob Strasner    
Mount Hope, KS  |  February, 28, 2014 at 08:37 AM

Don, first thank you for the civil reply and I will do likewise. Again, I would direct you to actual scientific studies that had to take place before glyphosate was released for commercial use. Please direct yourself to the study done at Cornell University on glyphosate and it's effects on the environment including flora and fauna. Notice that the amounts of glyphosate given to the test subjects were massive amounts that would never be encountered in daily consumption (if there is any) or in any incidental contact through handling an ear of sweet corn. I would also point out that it waas tested on eight different strains of bacteria with zero negative results. As for the Chinese, Iwould have to ask myself why they import and plant so many metric tons of gm soy and corn. Autism and Alzheimer's? Vaccines, wheat, pcb, ddt, any other ag pesticide and climate change have all been the culprits at one time or another. My contention is that we have a larger population pool and better detection methods than we did even ten years ago. When I was a kid Grandma was "just slippping her mind a little" and Junior was just hyper. Glyphosate in everyone's urine? Please guide me to that unbiased study, because I cant seem to find it. Do you know how much glyphsate we apply over an acre (43,560 sq. ft.)? Generally speaking it is 22 ozs to a qt. This is all done in the first four weeks of the crops life cycle. Glyphosate is metabolized within a plant within ten days. All this takes place three months before harvest. How there could possibly be any glyphosate left in that plant or in that root zone baffles me. Once more, when the fact are laid on the table, I can guess what the response will be.

Iowa  |  February, 28, 2014 at 01:57 PM

Bob, I wish I was as knowledgable about the work done with glyphosate as some people I know but I am not. How long was the Cornell study? As I said short term big doses may not do harm-but the concern is low levels over a longer time-and I do not believe anyone has looked at that. As I understand it-the rate of autism 20 years ago was about 1 in every 10,000 children. Today people talk about a rate of 1 in every 80-90 children. If those rates are truly accurate then I don't think you can write that off to better detection methods. Glyphosate does not just disappear in the plant. There levels in the plant and the seed at harvest. I believe Round-up ready sweet corn has a tolerance of 3.5 parts per million, corn grain 13 ppm, and soybeans 20ppm. It can be found if looked for. A researcher at a university in Germany has shown a definite antibiotic effect of glyphosate when fed to cattle-the good bugs are killed and bacteria like Clostridium that were held in check by the good bugs proliferate. This has led to diseases like enterotoxigenic botulism-the botulism toxin was produced in the gut instesd of ingested. This same researcher has also tested a lot of people and found glyphosate in the urine-in their cases it was coming from the small grains being sprayed before harvest. According to her there was enough on some of the barley to mess up some beer fermentation-pretty serious to a German! There is a lab in MN that has tested human urine and found it. Alas, a lot of the glyphosate research that may be critical is done in Europe because Monsanto does have a very long reach and it has a big influence on what gets done at our universities here. No one is going to risk losing grant money from Monsanto .


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