Looking Beyond Additives Foods Nature Never Made

Genetically engineered foods, also known as bioengineered foods, are foods with extra genes added artificially through special laboratory processes. Like preservatives, flavor enhancers, and other chemical boosters used in food, the genes — which may come from plants, animals, or microorganisms such as bacteria — are used to make foods

1 More nutritious 1 Better tasting

1 More resistant to disease and insects

Genetic engineering may also help plants and animals grow faster and larger, thus increasing the food supply. And it may enable us to produce foods with medicines bred right into the food itself. (Check out Chapter 26.)

The Big Question is: Are genetically engineered foods safe? Boy, oh boy, can you get a fight going over that one! The best answer may be that only time can tell. As you can imagine, many ordinary people don't want to wait to find out. For them, genetically engineered foods are simply unacceptable, characterized dismissively as "frankenfoods" (as in Dr. Frankenstein's monster).

To permit consumers to make a clear choice — "Yes, I'll take that biotech food" or "No, I won't" — the European Union requires food labels to specifically state the presence of any genetically altered ingredients. In the United States, the FDA currently requires wording on labels to alert consumers to genetic engineering only when it results in an unexpected allergen, such as corn genes in tomatoes, or changes the nutritional content of a food.

Whether the wording on the label matters to most consumers or whether most consumers are willing to accept genetically altered foods seems to depend on whom you ask. The International Food Information Council (IFIC), a trade group for the food industry, accepts the current label wording rules. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, wants to see the words "genetically altered" on all foods that have been, well, genetically altered. CSPI also wants the FDA to finalize a rule requiring food marketers to notify the agency in advance when introducing a new altered food or plant, a policy that's already in place for foods from genetically altered animals.

Naturally, each organization has conducted a survey to bolster its point of view. For example, IFIC's survey says that nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of Americans expect food technology to serve up better-quality, better-tasting food. CSPI's competing survey says, "Not so fast." The difference lies in the questions. The IFIC's survey questions emphasize the benefits of biotech; CSPI's survey questions lean more heavily on the drawbacks. Here are a couple of comparable questions from the CSPI and IFIC surveys:

1. Question

CSPI Version: Should food labels tell you if a food has been genetically altered in any way? 70 percent (Yes)

IFIC Version: Would you say you support or oppose FDA's [current labeling] policy? 59 percent (Support)

2. Question

CSPI Version: Would you buy food labeled "genetically engineered"? 43 percent (Yes)

IFIC Version: Would you buy a food if it had been modified by biotechnology to taste better or fresher? Or stay fresher? 54 percent (Yes)

In other words, despite a slight wariness about exploring new nutritional ground, Americans seem intrigued by the promise of food innovations and are willing to give the whole idea a try. After that, the proof will be in the — genetically engineered — pudding.

To read the CSPI survey, click on www.cspinet.org, choose Reports, and scroll down to "National Opinion Poll on Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods." To read the IFIC survey, type this into your Search bar:

ific.nisgroup.com/research/upload/20 0 5BiotechSurvey.pdf

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