Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a four-part series that examines the controversial topic of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The series began Sunday and concludes today.
By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Genetically modified food has been on store shelves for 17 years in the United States.
But determining what products contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, remains a challenge for even the most conscientious consumers.
Absent labeling laws, shoppers who wish to avoid transgenic food are mostly left with two options, non-GMO advocates say: not using products that contain some of the more widely altered crops, such as corn and soybean, or by sticking to food that is certified organic.
Certified organic crops cannot be transgenic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For those on a budget, that may not be an option. And avoiding corn — which takes the form of high fructose corn syrup in many products — and soybean ingredients can be difficult.
About 75 to 80 percent of conventional processed food contains transgenic ingredients, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
“If you walk into the grocery store today and pick up a product, it’s pretty safe to assume if it has either corn, soy or canola,” it is GMO, said Courtney Pineau, assistant director of the Non-GMO Project.
The organization, based in Bellingham, Wash., certifies food products as being non-GMO and helps shoppers find alternatives to transgenic ingredients.
And, with the help of private verification efforts, the non-GMO industry is growing.
Pineau said non-GMO certified food products are worth about $3.5 billion annually, and her organization’s growth rate is at 108 percent. So far, it has certified over 9,000 products.
She said the Non-GMO Project offers the only third-party verification service in North America. Over 60 countries have restrictions or bans on GMO products, the group says on its website.
“The demand is certainly there,” Pineau said.
“I think … the market is going to rise to meet that demand.”
Royal Hawaiian Orchards, based in Hilo, is one of the companies that has been non-GMO certified.
Dennis Simonis, president and CEO of the macadamia nut company, said the certification helps with marketing and meeting the needs of consumers.
“It’s very important when you are selling in the natural (stores), very important in California,” he said.
“It’s a trend. We believe in it. A lot of customers believe in it.”
Simonis said each of his suppliers have to be certified as non-GMO.
That’s not always a problem, but with soy ingredients, that can be a little more challenging, he said.
“There are only a few,” Simonis said. “Sometimes it’s tricky.”
Even natural food stores can have a tough time keeping transgenic products off shelves.
Leslie “Malu” Mika, owner of Abundant Life Natural Foods in Hilo, said she has always preferred organic products but has to be more careful now with what she sells.
“Whenever we see corn and soy on the label, that sends up a red flag,” she said.
“I ask my buyer to choose the organic lines.”
Russell Ruderman, owner of Island Naturals, said he has made a commitment to not allow any new products with GMO ingredients.
“We can’t claim not to have GMOs on our shelves,” he said. “I don’t think any grocery store can claim that, personally.”
Ruderman, who is also a state senator, added he is in the gradual process of removing products known to have GMO ingredients.
Neither store identifies what products those are, but both owners say most of them are in the vitamins section.
“A lot of vitamins are grown on a base of corn,” Mika said.
“Organic vitamins is a new thing that is coming up on the market.
“I think it is in response to this GMO issue.”
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.