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Gerber ends use of GM ingredients

Medical experts in Europe and elsewhere question the safety of genetically engineered foods.
message board MESSAGE BOARDS:
Genetically modified foods

August 4, 1999
Web posted at: 11:42 a.m. EDT (1542 GMT)


(ENN) -- Gerber, the United States' largest producer of baby food, has decided to stop using genetically modified corn, soy and other foods in their baby food products, according to a Wall Street Journal report July 30.

Greenpeace, the international environmental group, hailed this as a move in the right direction in the campaign to raise awareness about the unknown dangers of genetically modified foods. "This is a major step by one of the country's leading food companies in recognition of the growing concern about the safety of these untested foods," said Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Issues Specialist Charles Margulis.

Greenpeace did not make any specific claims about the safety of genetically modified foods, but they feel that the health risks have not been fully explored. "Doctors and scientists around the world have warned that genetically engineered foods may not be safe," said Margulis.

Medical experts, including more than 2,000 doctors and health professionals in Germany, from the British Medical Association and the medical journal The Lancet have questioned the safety of genetically engineered foods. "Governments never should have allowed these products into the food chain without insisting on rigorous testing for effects on health," editors of The Lancet wrote recently.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that genetically modified foods are "as safe as other foods in the grocery store."

Earlier this spring, Margulis bought samples of dry and jarred baby foods made by Gerber and other companies from various grocery stores in New York City and sent them to a lab in Britain to test for small amounts of bio-engineered materials. The lab results showed that Gerber's jarred baby food did not contain bio-engineered ingredients, but the dry cereal products did. In May, Margulis faxed a letter to Gerber asking them if they used such ingredients in their baby food, all the while knowing the lab results.

"As you know, there is growing concern around the world about genetically engineered food," said the fax. The letter asked if Gerber used genetically modified foods, if so which ones and what were they doing to avoid including these foods in their products. It also asked that they please respond within the next five business days.

Gerber did not meet its deadline. and on June 18 Margulis held a news conference at a New York City restaurant to disclose the results of his report. Margulis admitted that he picked baby food for raising awareness about genetically modified foods because of the emotional issues that would no doubt come into play.

It could be construed that this action by Greenpeace was the cause of Gerber's recent decision. But officials at Novartis, Gerber's parent company based in Switzerland, maintain that this change in policy had been in the works for some time.

"It brought to light the use of genetically engineered corn and soy in the dried foods, brought it out in the open," said Sheldon Jones, vice president of communications for Novartis' consumer health division. But, he said, they were already "approaching this anyway."

Craig Winters, executive director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, said that the letter and lab results from Margulis probably had something to do with Gerber's decision. "It might have pushed them over the edge," he said.

However, he concurred that there was every indication that Gerber had been moving in this direction away from genetically modified foods, citing the fact that the company had already introduced a line of baby foods containing only organic ingredients.

According to Jones, Gerber believes that genetically modified foods are safe. Their decision to make the change away from bio-engineered ingredients was based on their desire to maintain the trust of their customers. He said that there has not been very much customer concern in the U.S. about the use of genetically modified foods, "but that is coming down the road somewhat."

There has been a strong opposition to genetically modified foods in Europe for some time, and Gerber is well aware of this controversy and of the role that Greenpeace has played in bringing it to the fore.

Last summer, Greenpeace confronted Novartis about the presence of bio-engineered ingredients in their Galactina line of baby food sold in Switzerland. As a result, Novartis removed many product lines from the Swiss grocery stores and made a promise to remove genetically modified ingredients from the Galactina foods.

Jones said that concerns about genetically modified foods were "not at the level, say, in Europe," but that Gerber was "trying to get in front in case it gets like that."

Ironically, Novartis sells a line of bio-engineered seeds. When asked about this contradiction, Jones said that Gerber and Novartis believe that at some point in time, genetically modified foods will receive a clean bill of health. "The issue will be worked out eventually and parents will come to realize that there are enhancements because of genetically engineered foods," he said, like some foods that, because of genetic engineering, resist insects and therefore do not need to be sprayed with pesticides.

Because some suppliers either grow both genetically modified and non-GM crops or are located near farms that raise genetically modified foods, Gerber stated they cannot guarantee that their baby food will be 100 percent free of bio-engineered ingredients. For instance, pollen from a genetically modified plant stuck to a bee could end up pollinating a plant in a field of non-GM crops, which could therefore contaminate the supply from that field, said Jones.

Gerber plans to use suppliers that do not use genetically modified foods and even ones that grow only organic foods, which can be much more expensive. But Jones said, "There is no indication that this will impact the price."

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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