UK supermarket betrays its consumers

In a move for the worse, UK supermarket Morrisons has followed Asda’s lead and announced that it will now allow genetically modified (GM) feed within its poultry supply chain. As a result, poultry and poultry products bought by UK shoppers at Morrisons will probably have been fed on feed containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), especially genetically modified maize and soya. It’s all very well for consumers to avoid eating GM foods, but unfortunately the meat they eat doesn’t have that luxury — although Jeffrey Smith says that animals avoid GM given the choice. Do they innately understand the risks that many of us are concerned about?

Does eating products from animals eating GM feed expose you to potential risks?

The research about risks to animals consuming GM crops just keeps expanding. It’s worth remembering that it may not be the transgene – the piece of DNA that has been transferred from the donor to the unrelated host crop plant – itself that is dangerous. While the vast majority of GM crops sold commercially have just one or two traits inserted – namely resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (RoundUp) or inclusion of a toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that makes the transgenic crop toxic to non-resistant caterpillar pests – the biotech industry is desperately trying to find novel traits to patent. By 2015, we can expect to see far more successful patents, some of which will be beneficial in themselves, such as optimised oil and starch content, improved nutrient profiles or drought tolerance.

However, just because the included traits are themselves beneficial does not rule out the possibility that animals or humans consuming the plant might experience adverse effects. It is the process of inserting foreign genetic material that appears to be responsible for a large part of the reproductive defects, reduced lifespan, immune suppression, abnormal growth, inflammatory conditions and other adverse events that have been associated with consuming GM crops. This finding was, of course, precisely what caused Dr Arpad Pusztai to become such a target of biotech interests.

The outcome for animals is, as Dr Pusztai found, somewhat clearer than for humans, given that animal studies are free of most of the ethical restrictions associated with human research. Then, of course, there’s the biotech industry and government’s long-standing view that rigorous safety studies are not needed, this limiting most of the animal studies to research groups independent of the biotech industry.  So, given the available evidence, what about the human consumer who eats or drinks products made from animals fed GM feed? Do the ‘transgenes’ migrate out of the animal’s gut and into the meat, milk and eggs that we then consume?

The research certainly appears to suggest that significant amounts of DNA from the GM crop pass through to the products. One of the major reasons for this is that DNA contained within animal feed is not readily degraded by food processing, and is therefore consumed intact.

This means that, even if a food product isn’t directly made from a GM crop or animal, a health risk could still exist if the food comes from an animal that has been fed GMOs, In our view, the very least we should expect is for food labels to show whether meats, milk, eggs or other animal-derived products have been produced from animals fed GMOs. So far, no country has made this compulsory and only a few, such as Ireland, have indicated that it might be a useful addition to consumer labelling.  

It’s worth noting that there is compulsory GMO labelling for animal feeds in the European Union (EU), just as there is for human foods. The trouble is that animals, as far as we’re aware, can’t read human text and don’t get the option of making a choice.

Keeping food cheap for the benefit of consumers?

Morrisons says that it must allow GM-fed poultry into its supply chain because of the rising costs of animal feed and compound feeds. This has forced the company to choose animals fed the cheapest feeds, and these happen to be the ones containing GMOs. We think Morrisons wants us to be thankful, but some will recall that this supermarket chain has had a history of being near the bottom of the UK supermarket leaderboard when it comes to animal welfare. Saying that, Morrisons’ policy on selling own-label eggs solely from uncaged birds, dating from 2010, should be commended. It’s just a pity that these birds might well be fed GM feeds.

Morrisons has expressed concerns about diseases in free-range birds, but its move toward free-range has clearly been the result of public pressure over animal welfare, as well as the EU directive that banned the barren battery cage by 1st January 2012. It’s unfortunate that a significant number of poultry producers appear not to have complied with the ban as yet.

Many question why a patented crop with a supposedly added value, in this case a genetically modified trait, should prove less expensive than its non-modified common and garden relative. In the case of soya and maize, the most important components of animal feeds, and the darlings of the processed food industry, the majority of the world’s crop is now GM.  This has all happened in a blink of an eye, since the first commercial GM crop was introduced in 1996. The sheer prevalence of GM soya and maize makes it ever more expensive to guarantee sources that are verifiably GMO-free. The GM contamination issue has now become a central problem – one that threatens any non-GM source, and especially organic foods, which must be guaranteed to only contain GMOs at levels below specific thresholds (typically between 0.5% and 0.9%).

Marry this with the fact that 85% of animal feed within the EU now contains GMOs and, one way or another, our supermarket shelves are destined to become increasingly lined with foods containing GMOs in some form or amount. That’s unless we, the people, make a very big fuss about it – or simply choose not to buy it!

Read the label?

Normally, when an individual wishes to ensure that something is either present or absent from the food they buy, the best advice is ‘read the label’. Unfortunately, this won’t generally help with GMO animal feeds. Although any product in the EU containing more than 0.9% GMO must state the presence of GMOs on the label, the problem remains that products derived from animals fed GMOs don’t have to be declared as such. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has, in the past, actively prevented companies from declaring that their products are produced without GM ingredients or hormones. Apparently, it’s confusing for consumers.

The consumer poses the ultimate barrier to GM

Anti-GM campaigning, including the current Californian campaign to push for GM labelling, has long shown that public outcry wields a lot of power. Earlier this year, BASF pulled the plug on its European operations due to lack of market acceptance. Ireland has agreed to voluntary labelling of human foods that have come from animals that have been fed on non-GM food. European citizens’ dislike for GMOs is the central factor keeping some of the biggest food producers in the world from including GM crops in the human food supply chain, given the presence of mandatory labelling within the EU. It’s not hard to understand why the biotech industry is applying huge pressure to push GM into the animal food supply chain in the EU in an attempt to make up this lost ground. 

Call to action: choose products that don’t contain GMOs!

  • Where and when you are able, buy organically certified meats and animal products, as these must either be free of GMOs or contain less than the acceptable threshold (below 0.9% in the EU)
  • As in Ireland, look out for optional labelling schemes where declarations are made about produce from non-GM-fed animals
  • Check out supermarket and supplier positions on GMOs via their websites; some take a proactive stance on GMOs, as was the case with Morrisons’ poultry until now
  • Buy meat that is labelled as being ‘exclusively grass-fed’
  • US citizens should consult Jeffrey Smith’s ‘Non-GMO Shopping Guide’
  • Californians must get behind the ballot initiative campaign to help impose mandatory GM labelling of foods 


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