Are U.S. consumers ready to demand labeling of genetically modified foods on their grocery shelves? The September issue of Consumer Reports magazine found DNA-altered ingredients in taco chips, infant formula, veggie burgers and corn-muffin mix. DNA-modified food has long been an international controversy, but a hidden issue for many Americans, because unlike Europe and, soon, Japan, the U.S. does not require genetically engineered food to be earmarked for shoppers.
Since the Consumer Reports article, however, Hain Food Group Inc. decided to slap labels declaring its Little Bear line of natural snacks free of ingredients from genetically modified plants. Heinz told The Wall Street Journal that it “will seek to avoid” genetically modified crops in all its U.S. products. Worthington Foods Inc., which makes Morningstar Farms veggie burgers, swore off genetically modified soybeans.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced public hearings on the labeling issue. Last week, 50 members of Congress joined Democratic Whip David Bonior of Michigan in calling on the FDA to reverse its position and order labeling.
“He believes FDA policy regarding genetically modified foods is flawed,” Bonior press secretary Fred Clark explained in a phone interview.
Genetic-engineering boosters, including the Grocery Manufacturers of America, dismiss labeling fever as the product of European-driven “hysteria.”
“There’s certainly no reason for consumers to be concerned,” said Grocery Manufacturers of America spokesman Brian Sansoni. “A lot of misinformation and hype have come over from Europe. Certainly the food has proven to be safe.” A pro-biotech-food Web site says labeling would have the “unintended and unfortunate consequence of misleading consumers into thinking that biotech products have different health effects.”
While there is no direct evidence that genetically engineered food is unsafe, scientists have questioned whether tinkering could inadvertently increase natural toxins or decrease nutrients in foods. Allergic reactions are a worry; in the mid-1990s, pre-market screening of soybeans modified with the gene of a Brazil nut caused allergic reactions among volunteers who were allergic to Brazil nuts. The modified soy was never released, but there remains no screening system in place to keep an unanticipated allergen off the market. Groups including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace USA have raised a number of environmental questions, linked to reports that genetically modified corn may endanger the monarch butterfly.
Since the FDA decided against labeling in 1992, genetically engineered crops have spread across the U.S. They now represent more than 35 percent of all corn and almost 55 percent of all soybeans, according to 1999 industry estimates — in the forms of soy oil and corn syrup, common ingredients in a wide array of processed foods.
“What I’m hearing across the country from consumers, and not just organic consumers, is they really want to have the right to know if their food is genetically altered,” said Debbie Ortman, national field organizer for the Organic Consumer Association of Duluth, Minnesota.
“I don’t think the awareness about the extent of genetic modification is that high anywhere,” added Steve Urow, Santa Monica–based Web designer for Organic Consumers.
The FDA hearings start Nov. 18 in Chicago; a third meeting is scheduled December 13 in Oakland. The FDA is taking written e-mail comments at www.fda.gov/ ohrms/dockets; messages must refer to “Docket No. 99N-4282.” The deadline for comment is January 13.
GREAT CAESAR’S GHOST
It was as if Perry White had picked up the phone to find Great Caesar’s Ghost on the line — but this took place last week, in the Spring Street headquarters of our own metropolitan fishwrap. The hard-bitten, White-like editor was Bill Boyarsky, the L.A. Times’ veteran boss of city news, and on the line was Otis Chandler, scion of the founding family, calling in more than a year after stepping down from the Times Mirror board.
Chandler had been following the coverage of the Staples Center scandal that had been rocking the paper for more than a week. The paper had cut a deal with the center developers to split the profits on a special edition of the Sunday magazine devoted solely to celebrating the arena. Chandler decided it was time to weigh in. Steps taken by Times Mirror chairman Mark Willes to break down the traditional separation between editorial and business operations were “ill-advised” and “unsuccessful,” Chandler said, but nothing compared to the “unbelievably stupid and unprofessional handling of the Staples Center special section.”
Ever the reporter, Boyarsky took down every word of Chandler’s rambling, five-page critique, then called a meeting in the newsroom to recite the screed. The Times published a story on Chandler’s broadside the next day, along with major newspapers across the country.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Willes, a genial but uncompromising executive seemingly born to embody the Times’ stifling corporate culture, called Boyarsky into his corner office two days later and dressed him down. Boyarsky had been “disloyal,” and Willes regarded his transmittal of the letter a “betrayal,” as Boyarsky recounted the conversation to several reporters later that day. Boyarsky was not punished for his transgression, but he’s had enough of his unaccustomed role as newsmaker. “That’s my last press conference,” he declared.
As it happened, the Chandler letter had little immediate effect on the paper’s handling of the Staples controversy. Hours before Otis’ phone call, editor Michael Parks had reversed course and agreed to assign media writer David Shaw to write an exhaustive piece on the magazine deal. Still, Chandler succeeded in putting the question of journalistic ethics front and center — earning the Times a rare appearance on the editorial page of The New York Times, which labeled Willes’ efforts in pursuit of new profits “radical and journalistically dangerous.” Willes can’t have liked that much — but then, Willes can’t so easily call New York Times edit-page editor Howell Raines out to the woodshed.
One holiday you won’t find on the Hallmark calendar is Buy Nothing Day, which falls the Friday after Thanksgiving — the busiest shopping day of the year. Created eight years ago by anti-consumerist and Adbusters magazine founder Kalle Lasn, Buy Nothing is a holiday from the “shop till you drop” madness that is synonymous with the U.$. of A. Organizers hope to convince you that your mom doesn’t really need that Ann Taylor scarf (it’s 70 degrees in December); instead, buy her an acre of salvaged rain forest, or sign a Gift Exemption Voucher agreeing not to exchange gifts this year, they suggest. (See Adbusters’ Web site at https://www.adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd/.)
The Buy Nothing Day campaign has triggered headlines in 15 countries and inspired antics worldwide. “In Australia they dressed up as pigs and invaded the malls,” Lasn says. Local guerilla art and cultural provocateur groups such as the Ruckus Society and the L.A. Cacophony Society (https://la.cacophony.org/thismonth.html) have traditionally been in on the action. L.A. Cacophony has a gathering slated November 26 at 2 p.m. at the Farmers Market (at Third and Fairfax). Anti-shoppers are urged to bring poster board and markers for sign making (“Shop Till the Earth Drops”), kazoos and concertinas for noisemaking, demented Christmas-carol lyric sheets (“Deck the Malls” or “Charge! The Hilfiger Angels Sing”), and old Visas for the “credit-card cut-up pool.” In a world where 20 percent of the population controls 80 percent of its natural resources, Lasn proposes that we stop and ask ourselves: “How much is enough in my life?”