Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 12, 2003
Know what's on your plate
Genetically altered food comes with to many unknowns
By SUZANNE ELSTON
The world of genetically engineered foods is one that I find both terrifying and fascinating. Being a fairly curious person, I find science and technology a fun thing - particularly if it's kept in the laboratory. On the other hand, since I heartily believe that we are what we eat, I would just as soon keep the test tubes away from my dinner plate.
For those who share my concern, last month Greenpeace Canada launched an updated edition of its popular Shoppers Guide: How to Avoid Genetically Engineered Food. The guide lists over 1,000 products commonly found in Canada's grocery stores and indicates whether they contain GE ingredients. This new edition also contains a special section on the potential health risks to babies of GE foods.
"Canadians have the right to know what they are eating," said Holly Penfound, Greenpeace's environmental health coordinator. "Lack of labelling is of particular concern to parents who want to avoid feeding GE foods to their babies and children. Greenpeace produces this guide because of the failure and refusal of companies like Loblaws and the government to label GE products."
Organizations such as the Royal Society of Canada and the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the FAO/WHO (that's World Health Organization for Mel Lastman) have recognized that health risks that may arise from eating genetically engineered foods pose particular risks to babies, children and other vulnerable populations.
"Infants who are formula fed are already at increased risk for infectious disease, allergies, asthma and auto-immune disease such as juvenile diabetes and childhood cancer. The presence of genetically modified ingredients puts infants at even greater risk for developing allergies and possibly decreased immune capacity to resist disease," said Elisabeth Sterken, executive director of INFACT Canada.
Scary thought, particularly if you're a baby. But what's even scarier is that safety testing or labelling for foods containing GE ingredients is horribly inadequate. This can be particularly dangerous for people with food allergies. For example, there has been some experimentation with splicing fish genes into tomatoes to make the fruit more resistant to water damage. For my husband Brian - who has a fatal allergy to all fish - this alteration could prove to be most troublesome if not identified.
And he's not alone. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, by 1999 that figure had increased dramatically to 38 per cent of the population that suffers from some kind of allergy.
Allergic reaction is just the tip of the genetically engineered iceberg. The Washington D.C. based Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) has been a leader in food safety for decades and shares Greenpeace's concern about the safety of GE foods. According to a recent news release, "There are virtually no testing, monitoring, or inspections conducted by FDA, EPA, or USDA for commercial biotech products. Instead, the government relies on the biotechnology industry to police itself and self-report any problems."
"As a result," says the Public Research Interest Group (PRIG) website, "we have become the subjects of a large-scale experiment on our health and our environment by genetic engineering companies such as Monsanto - the makers of Agent Orange and DDT."
For consumers the best bet is to vote with your wallet. Find out if your favourite product contains GE ingredients, use the toll-free number on product packaging and ask the manufacturer. If they don't know, ask them, why not? If they won't give you an answer, don't buy the product. It's that simple.
Recommended Websites:To order The Greenpeace Shoppers Guide call 1-800-320-7183,send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org/ or view it on the web at www.greenpeace.ca/shoppersguide/. A $2 donation is requested to cover the cost of production.
The Ontario Public Health Association's report, Protecting Our Food Supply: Public Health Implications of Food Biotechnology is available at www.opha.on.ca/ppres/2001-01_pp.pdf
The Royal Society of Canada Report on the food biotech regulatory system, Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada can be found at www.rsc.ca/foodbiotechnology/indexEN.html.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Nutrition Action Healthletter is published 10 times a years and is available in a Canadian version for $24 (includes GST). For more information, visit www.cspinet.org.
The Public Interest Research Group's GE Food Alert website is loaded with great information about GE foods. Go to www.gefoodalert.org.
For more information about the health effects of infant formula, visit www.infactcanada.ca.
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