Foodservice: a firestorm brewing.
Consumers in this country may have quietly accepted genetically modified foods in their diet so far, but there are several groups of chefs in the United States and Britain who are demanding answers to some tough questions.
In a recent move, activist group Friends of the Earth has convinced Britain's top restaurants to back its campaign calling for the U.K. government to impose a five-year ban on genetically modified food and crops. According to a statement released by Friends of the Earth, "The ban will allow for further research into their impacts on health and the environment, and for the public to decide whether they want this new technology to be introduced into the U.K."
Recent studies in the U.K. show that 61% of the public does not want to eat genetically modified foods and 77% support a ban on the commercial growing of these crops. And the government is starting to listen.
As part of new labeling regulations in the United Kingdom, all restaurants will have to label any food item containing genetically modified ingredients. While activists are expected to be happy about this development, some, including Friends of the Earth, are concerned that loopholes in the new law will mean certain genetically modified ingredients (oil and lecithin, for example) will not have to be labeled.
Similar concerns are starting to make their way across the "pond" to the United States. Activist group Greenpeace recently joined forces with Chefs Collaborative 2000 to convince consumers in this country of the need for labeling of genetically modified foods. Chefs Collaborative was founded about five years ago to support organic fanning and sustainable agriculture and boasts roughly 1,000 members.
The alliance between Greenpeace and Chefs Collaborative is based on the notion that everyone has the right to know what they are eating. The groups have been distributing brochures and form letters for consumers to send to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In a similar move, an effort led by the Pure Foods Campaign, a branch of the Foundation on Economic Trends, has signed up 1,500 U.S. chefs who also have pledged never to serve what the group has labeled "Frankenfoods" in their restaurants. Could supermarket foodservice operations be far behind?
Both Chefs Collaborative and the Pure Foods Campaign admit that while there are no studies demonstrating any ill effects from consuming genetically altered products, they say it's too early to know the long-term implications. Ann Cooper, executive chef at the Putney Inn in Putney, Vt., and the author of a book due out next year titled "Sustainable Kitchens," believes the central issue for those in the restaurant business is labeling.
"There is such a high percentage of crops currently being bioengineered without consumers' knowledge," says Cooper. "We're at the point where nearly every consumer is eating a bioengineered product, but yet they might not know they are because there are currently no labeling laws in place. The concern for us isn't so much the raw ingredients we purchase for cooking, it's the processed products because they are not labeled."
She notes that critics of biotech, including Chefs Collaborative, believe that adequate testing has not been done on genetically modified crops. "We truly do not know what the long-term health effects of these products could be, and we are, in a sense, human test subjects," Cooper says. "The restaurateur and ultimately the consumer should have the ability to decide what products they will be served and eat."
Another issue Cooper believes must be addressed is that of liability. "Today we have a proliferation of bioengineered foods. The second generation of altered foods soon to become available are the transgenetic products that cross two different foods to make one superior one," she says. "There are very real possibilities that people who are allergic to certain foods will end up eating them unknowingly because there are no laws saying products like these should be labeled."
Cooper and others point out that biotech is not all bad. "I see the advantages of being able to grow food with less water or less pesticides, making them ideal to feed Third World countries," she says. "But at present those aren't the ways in which genetically modified foods are being addressed."
What will it take for things to change? "We have not had enough conclusive testing as to the safety of these products, and we don't have labeling laws because we as a country haven't demanded it," says Cooper. "The result is that restaurateurs and consumers are not being given a choice."
In conjunction with the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., Cooper will lead a panel discussion in September on this topic. "I don't think there are any hard answers yet, but I think the majority of chefs want to understand the events and their implications," she says.
Cooper notes that among chefs there are mixed opinions about biotechnology. "There are chefs who don't want to be forced to use any bioenhanced products and there are others who are open to it, but they want to know more," she says. "Then there is another group that doesn't know anything about it and couldn't care less."
Might consumers stop going to restaurants because they're unsure that what they are eating is safe? "I don't think that will be the case," says Cooper. "I think the problem will hit grocery stores before it hits restaurants. Right, wrong or otherwise, most consumers look at chefs as experts in food and tend to place more trust in them than they do the supermarket. Some of the types of restaurants people go to might change. Will these developments affect the people who eat at McDonald's? My guess is no they won't."
However, Cooper does envision a time when consumers will exert their influence. "We're likely to see consumers demanding more organic options or, at the very least, ask that products used in the restaurants they frequent be those which are grown locally by farmers who practice sustainable agriculture," she says. "Things will change when educated consumers begin demanding better, safer food supplies. Until consumers vote with their dollars, things will likely remain the same. When that happens, however, it will be stores such as Whole Foods that consumers flock to rather than traditional grocery stores."
There is some question about whether the FDA will consider mandating labeling laws. "It will take a public outcry like what happened with the Organic Standards Act, where 300,000 people e-mailed the FDA in opposition to the law they were proposing," Cooper says. "It's unfortunate that we would need to get to that level, but we're nearing the point where something has to change. Unfortunately, I'm afraid it's going to take another incident like the E.coli scare before we see that change."
Despite the opposition to biotech expressed by certain groups, others stand by the fact that genetically modified products are safe and, in many cases, better for us than the products they've replaced. "How many of us drink Coca-Cola? For the past five years all the high corn fructose in the soda has been genetically modified," says Gene Grabowski, vice president, communications, for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), Washington, D.C. "The truth is we've been drinking and eating the stuff for years. I've seen Figures showing that up to 60% of products on supermarket shelves contain some genetically modified ingredients. It's all around us and there have been no ill effects."
Grabowski cites industry figures indicating that 45% of cotton, 38% of soybean and 25% of com crops are genetically modified in this country. "Since 1983 all major crops have been modified to some degree," he says. "It's growing exponentially every year and it won't be long before we reach 100%."
He notes that GMA is opposed to mandatory labeling for biotech products, whether they're packaged foods or foodservice items. "We believe the current policy is sound and based on science," he says. "That's why I don't understand the events unfolding across the Atlantic, particularly in the U.K. There's nothing to forestall, it's already here. Most restaurants are already serving foods that have been genetically modified and have been for years. You'd be hard pressed to find a Chinese restaurant that isn't serving genetically modified foods."
The confusion over biotech has created the need for extensive public relations efforts, notes Grabowski. "Our biggest challenge is to find a way to get everyone on the same page," he says. "Part of our job, therefore, is to help educate the public on the benefits of these products and to make sure that misinformation does not get a strong foothold in the U.S. like it has in Europe. Rather than giving in to the minors, we feel it's more productive to work with biotech companies to help communicate the message of benefits."
Adds Steven Grover, vice president of technical services, public health and safety, National Restaurant Association (NRA), Chicago, Ill., "Most of these foods are researched by the FDA, and if they are approved and deemed as safe, then I'm comfortable with that level of research. Keep in mind, some of these foods have been scrutinized for over a decade and so far no one at the FDA has had objections."
Grover points out that if you dig deep enough with any food, you're going to find some person who will get sick if they consume it. "You're always going to find one food or substance that would pose a hazard to someone," he says. "We have pharmaceuticals and many other products that go under far less research that we put on the market. If we don't trust the FDA and others charged with making these decisions, then the answer is to fix the process, not condemn the people who make the products."
The negative reaction from some people to genetically modified products is not surprising, says Grover. "It's no wonder people are confused about the safety and efficacy of bioengineered foods, given that they've been slapped with the 'Finnkenfood' label," he says. "I remember the days when they said the same things about pasteurized milk too."
When it comes to restaurants and other foodservice operators, Grover says he doesn't believe that they want to be in a position of passing judgment on biotech foods. "We don't have the expertise to make these kinds of decisions, and that's why we have to rely on scientists and the government to determine whether genetically altered foods are safe or not," he says.
John Gray, president of the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA), Falls Church, Va., agrees. "You'd probably find our distribution members on the same side as the NRA," he says. "Let the FDA and USDA do their thing and then if there is a problem, tackle it there, not the science itself."
The prospect of mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods, particularly produce, is an "operational nightmare," says Gray. "Asking supermarkets to change the store signage and product labels on items that are purchased daily from worldwide sources is a tremendous undertaking. There are enough current problems with maintaining store signage and displaying correct information without adding this to the equation. This would also represent a huge cost to the distribution side of the business to segregate out and individually label where items come from. I'm not so sure that the distributors would eagerly take on a role that puts the liability of providing accurate sourcing information in their hands."
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|Title Annotation:||protests against serving genetically modified foods|
|Comment:||Foodservice: a firestorm brewing.(protests against serving genetically modified foods)|
|Date:||May 1, 1999|
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