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Food, Science and Transparency

April 27, 2012

In my twenties I turned on to the fact that partially hydrogenated oils were in everything. Some early reports indicated that it was problematic. But the mass media hadn’t quite jumped on the story and nobody was even talking about labeling trans fats.

But there I stood in the grocery aisles like a crazy person reading all the ingredients of everything, and finding only a small handful of products that I felt good about eating. I’ll never forget how glad I was to find those MI-DEL ginger snaps.

Eventually the media, the scientists and the policymakers got around to making sure these trans fats were labeled. And soon thereafter they have almost disappeared entirely. It’s amazing what happens when consumers are given information and then have the ability to make informed decisions.

Over two years ago, I wrote about “pink slime” after a big story ran in the New York Times on the meat product also known as Lean Finely Textured Beef (or LFTB for short). I guess the paper isn’t quite as influential as it used to be, because it took years for the story to capture the attention of the national television news. But once people were aware that something other than ground beef was lurking in their ground beef, there was public outrage.

Now that LFTB is out in the open, manufacturers, grocers and restaurants are distancing themselves from it. Although Forbes ran an interesting and inflammatory counter argument recently called Anti-Technology Activists Are The Real Slime. Read it, then let’s discuss.

I’ve got to thank my old friend SK for bringing the story to my attention.

This was a timely piece because I had really wanted to talk about food labeling for a while now, especially as it relates to genetically modified foods. Misters Miller and Stier, who penned the article, would gladly paint me with their anti-technology brush.

Here’s a special quote from the piece in favor of GE crops:

If human intervention to induce genetic improvement of plants is “unnatural,” we’ve been unnatural for 10,000 years; with the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets have been genetically modified in some way.

It would be a ridiculous argument if it weren’t in an article coauthored by the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. All of which helps makes sense of the FDA’s seemingly laissez faire approach to GMOs.

I believe there is a fundamental difference between crossbreeding similar plants and inserting specific genes into a plant’s genome so that it produces an insecticide that runs through its veins.

It’s not that I’m anti-technology. And I’m no hippy either. I try to make informed decisions. I don’t buy organic everything, and I am no monk. It’s that I am unconvinced in this case the benefits of GE foods are worth the risk, given the potential long-term effects they may have on human health, the environment and the ecosystem (regardless how slight).

But GE crops are on the rise. GE sugar beets were recently approved. GE alfalfa made it through the approval process despite a massive push by some of the natural food industry’s biggest players to try and stop it. GE crops and seed producers are firmly established and aren’t going to be legislated out of existence anytime soon.

There are plenty of people who don’t mind the presence of LFTB in their ground beef. And that’s fine. If they want to eat it and save some money, more power to them. Similarly there are going to be people who don’t mind eating GMOs when they ultimately find out they are in almost all the foods they eat.

Except now, they don’t know. Almost nobody in America knows.

All we can hope for is that the FDA agrees to institute mandatory labeling of GE ingredients in consumer goods. Then people can decide if it’s something they want to feed their family or not. And it’s not like this would be a radical policy. Forty other countries have similar such requirements.

While we need hope, we don’t need to wait. Those natural food industry heavy hitters have created the Just Label It campaign, and I’d like to solicit your participation with their efforts. While they have already submitted over a million comments to the FDA, they are now collecting signatures for a petition to the White House. Their goal has already been achieved, but adding more supporters never hurts.

It’s time for the shenanigans going on with food to stop. Consumers deserve to know what’s in their food, be it LFTB, GMOs or Orange Flavor Packs. C’mon government! Help make sure the free market has the information it needs to make informed decisions.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    April 27, 2012 10:18 am

    Nice piece. I agree.

  2. techcommdood permalink
    April 27, 2012 10:41 am

    Agreed. Knowing what’s in foods is important. I know a family with kids with very acute food allergies. Though not officially proven, they’ve found that the foods their kids get sick from in the grocery store do not make them sick when they eat home-grown and home-made versions of some of these foods. That leads me to believe that there’s something about either the pesticides or GE mutations in these foods that’s causing their poor reactions. Why them and not many others, I don’t know. It could be their own genetics, or something that stemmed from baby formula ingredients when they were infants. Who knows. But it’s an interesting factoid to ponder.

  3. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    April 27, 2012 11:02 am

    Burgers without pink slime lack that lovely tooth and mouth feel I’ve come to know and love. Pink slime restores umami to the burger, don’t you agree?

  4. April 27, 2012 11:35 am

    Your shopping experience with partially hydrogenated oils sounds is so similar to mine. I lived on those Mi-Del Ginger Snaps for sweet snacks for years. It has gotten easier to determine what’s in what we’re eating over time, but it really needs to be better – especially when it comes to meat. You can tell by the growth of the local farmer’s markets over the last several years just how important it is to consumers. It’s time for the USDA and the FDA to catch onto that.

  5. April 29, 2012 6:17 am

    I have a big problem with the opinion piece you linked. It started out OK, and the derailed quickly into a rant. If looking directly at the article, I could pinpoint exactly which paragraph, it is that evident. As a former journalist, that annoys me. The person who wrote it, I know, is not a journalist, but the editors of Scientific American should know better.

    “Blah blah blah these hippie liberals don’t want poor people to eat.” Which, of course, is nonsense. And an irresponsible accusation. The poor simply have gone from starving to being malnourished due to the availability of cheap, processed foods, and it’s only compounded the issue, because it has bled into the working class and the middle class as well.

    Not mention, aside from meat production, it is hogwash. Yesterday morning I bought emergency half and half for my mother-in-law’s house, and the cheapest one was still more expensive than Battenkill’s glass bottle version I get from the Famer’s Market. Granted, costs are higher on Long Island than Albany, but not THAT much higher.

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