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The debate over genetic modification heats up

Sysco Shape September 2014

With the movement toward "clean labels" and ingredient transparency gaining traction throughout the retail and foodservice industries, few issues today appear to be generating as much debate as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Simply stated, a GMO is an organism whose genetic material has been altered in order to change one or more of its characteristics. Genetic alteration has been practiced throughout history using techniques such as hybridization. However, the term GMO has become synonymous with the modern technology of genetic engineering (GE), a scientific process in which DNA molecules are altered in a lab to create genetic sequences that would not otherwise be found in nature.

"It uses very controlled, specific biotechnology to expedite a process of creating healthier, more productive crops," says Pam Smith, registered dietititian nutritionist, and founder and president of Shaping America's Plate, an Orlando, Fla.-based menu development firm.

In crop production, GE aims to increase yields for farmers; reduce the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides; reduce water use; increase nutritional quality; improve flavor and appearance; increase food safety; and improve plant qualities for harvesting, shipping and storage. As a result, some proponents believe that GMOs could play an important role in feeding the world’s rapidly growing population.

However, the process also has its detractors. While proponents maintain that gene transfer employing GE techniques is an extremely precise process, others argue that the longterm effects of gene-altering technology remain unknown and that GMOs may be transferring genes in unpredictable ways as compared with traditional plant breeding.

Opponents assert that GMOs have not been adequately studied, despite the fact that governmental entities like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA have protocols in place for evaluating the safety of such foods.

Nevertheless, Smith notes, "There continues to be some public fear and sentiment about what has come to be referred to as 'Frankenfood.' They worry about what we are doing in the name of saving the earth."

While some opponents would like to see the process restricted altogether, others contend that, in the very least, foods made from genetically modified ingredients should be labeled as such. In May Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law making his state the first in the nation to require foods made with GMOs to be so designated.

According to the Vermont law — which is being challenged in court by several trade groups contending that GMOs are perfectly safe and have been thoroughly studied and tested — food items sold in retail venues that are completely or partially produced through genetic engineering must be clearly labeled by July 2016.

Nor is Vermont alone. The states of Connecticut and Maine earlier passed laws requiring GMO labeling, but neither will take effect until other states in their region enact similar laws. New York is working on a GMO labeling bill, which, if it becomes law, would cause Connecticut's law to take effect. While labeling legislation was defeated in California and Washington, in just 2014 so far, 25 other states have proposed 67 pieces of legislation related to GMO labeling. Over the past two years, more than 70 bills have been introduced in 30 states.

Meanwhile, observers question whether the federal government — most likely the FDA, which already is responsible for approving genetic modifications to food and seeds — will be compelled to take a position on the issue and introduce national labeling regulations that would pre-empt a possible patchwork quilt of state regulations.

To date, the foodservice industry has not been drawn deeply into the GMO debate. Even in Vermont, where labeling will soon be required, restaurant food is exempt. The bill's authors maintain that restaurants remain outside the scope of the law because lawmakers chose to focus on foods for which consumers regularly expect to find labels.

However, while there is no public policy currently impacting the restaurant industry, some operators are responding to growing public sentiment. Smith likens it to the way Chinese restaurants in the 1970s and 1980s acted to remove monosodium glutamate from their kitchens when the public started worrying about it. "Even though the effects of MSG were disproved, the restaurants needed to respond to their own unique consumer demands," she says.

Nevertheless, some restaurateurs have taken a stand on GMOs. The1,572-unit fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has said it wants to remove all genetically modified ingredients from its menu and recently announced it was switching to non-GMO corn tortillas. Earlier, the Denver-based chain switched from soybean oil — which is chiefly made with genetically modified soybeans — to sunflower oil, which has not been genetically engineered.

"Our goal is to eliminate GMOs from Chipotle's ingredients, and we're working hard to meet this challenge," Chipotle says on its website.

It’s important to understand that very few fresh fruits and vegetables for sale in the U.S. are genetically modified. In addition, products labeled as 100 percent USDA Organic are non-GMO. Currently, the only GMOs commercially available in this country are soybeans, field and sweet corn, papaya, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets and summer squash, although testing with other plants is ongoing.

Still, because GMO crops become ingredients in many food additives, GMOs are widespread throughout the food chain and are used in an estimated 80 percent of packaged food. More than 93 percent of corn, soy and cotton in the United States today is genetically modified, according to the USDA. In 2014, GMO crops made up 94 percent of domestic soybean acreage, 93 percent of all corn planted, and 96 percent of all cotton.

And, as genetic engineering continues to grow as an important issue within the foodservice industry, suppliers are working to provide their customers with products that meet their needs. For example, to help foodservice operators address concerns about GMOs, Sysco teamed up with Stratas Foods LLC to distribute Stratas' newest premium sunflower frying oil that contains no genetically modified organisms and no trans fats. This non-GMO, mid-oleic and high-oleic blend is being marketed under the Sustain brand name and combines the health, performance and sustainability benefits that restaurants require.

Since being launched in May, Sustain has been growing in popularity, according to Troy Petering, Sysco's director, Category Management Shortening & Oil. "It's definitely starting to take off — particularly in our Pacific markets," Petering says."[Operators] don't have to sacrifice performance — it tastes good and it works."

In the meantime, as the industrywide conversation about GMOs continues, food manufacturers are striving to meet the changing requirements of members of the foodservice community. “It's an issue that is of growing importance to customers,” Petering says. “And it's important that we provide our customers with the products they need.”


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