G.M.O. labeling rally
G.M.O. labeling is most important to consumers, according to David Fikes, v.p. of consumer community affairs and communications for F.M.I.

NASHVILLE, TENN. — G.M.O.s continue to be a hot topic with consumers, and the huge turnout at the Annual Meat Conference session titled, “Addressing Consumer Concerns with G.M.O.s” on Feb. 22 showed that many in the meat industry are eager to figure out what their role should be in the ongoing debate.

Leading this discussion at one of the morning breakout sessions at the A.M.C., hosted annually by the Food Marketing Institute and the North American Meat Institute, was F.M.I.’s David Fikes, vice-president of consumer community affairs and communications.

David Fikes, F.M.I.
David Fikes, v.p. of consumer community affairs and communications for F.M.I.

“We can all agree that consumers are confused about G.M.O.s,” Mr. Fikes said. “And that consumer confusion is justified.”

Mr. Fikes explained that genetically modifying organisms is a confusing scientific procedure requiring sophisticated technological expertise, and many consumers distrust things that they don’t understand. And, even more so, people tend to experience more distrust if they feel like information is being withheld from them.

“Genetically engineered (G.E.), genetically modified (G.M.) and genetically modified organism (G.M.O.) refer to the highly technical process of taking the gene for a specific characteristic from one organism and transferring it to another,” Mr. Fikes explained. Or more simply put, “A G.M.O. is a crop that has very specific changes made to its D.N.A. — usually having one or two genes added or silenced to achieve a desired trait.”

The confusion about G.M.O.s is everywhere. G.M.O. can refer to the process but also the products that result from the process, Mr. Fikes said.

Crops approved for genetic modification in the marketplace today include soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, squash, zucchini, papaya and alfalfa. More than 90% of soybeans and corn are genetically modified. Because these products are commonly used in animal feed, that’s how the topic of G.M.O.s enters the meat marketplace.

While the G.M.O. debate is currently a polarizing topic, Mr. Fikes explained there is a between consumer concern for G.M.O.s and their desire for labeling.

“The ‘right to know what’s in your food’ argument is getting more traction,” Mr. Fikes said. Regardless of whether consumers describe themselves as someone who “would not avoid G.M.O.s,” “would avoid but don’t currently avoid G.M.O.s” or “currently avoid G.M.O.s” more than 60% of each type of those consumers think there should be G.M.O. labeling versus the banning of G.M.O.s.

Education is key, Mr. Fikes explained. He suggested talking points for meat department employees who might get approached with consumer questions. Those points included:

  •  All G.M.O. crops (including corn, soybeans and sugar beets) have been evaluated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency and other worldwide scientific organizations and found to be safe and healthy for people and animals to eat.
  •  Meat and poultry livestock are not G.M.O.s. Although most animals are fed with G.M.O. ingredients, including corn and soybeans, there is no evidence that eating ingredients from G.M.O. plants affects animals’ meat or milk.
  •  Organic meat and poultry is non-G.M.O. and is from animals that are fed animal feed that does not contain ingredients from G.M.O. plants.

“G.M. products have been in the U.S. food supply since 1996 — hence we have years of practice that have shown no negative impact on animal or human health,” said Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University. “Farm animals, the most carefully monitored animals on the planet, have been raised on G.M. corn and soybeans over several generations and there is no evidence of negative effects on growth, reproduction or disease. And there has been no documented case of human illness or allergen associated with G.M. foods.”

Mr. Fikes explained, “We have to educate the public in a new way. We have to use social networks and engage trusted sources like farmers, doctors and local supermarkets.”

In current news, Mr. Fikes said that the F.M.I., alongside the Grocery Manufacturers Association (G.M.A.) and the agriculture community are supporting the efforts of U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts in introducing a bill that would:

  • create a national standard
  •  pre-empt state G.M.O. labeling laws; and
  •  call for education
Notice of mark-up of this legislation was released Feb. 19 and mark-up is expected by Feb. 25.