MEAT CONFERENCE REPORT: Consumer concern with GMOs continues

by Kimberlie Clyma
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Non-GMO remains an important part of the meat industry for producers and consumers.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – GMOs continue to be a hot topic with consumers, and the huge turnout at the Annual Meat Conference session titled, “Addressing Consumer Concerns with GMOs” 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 AMC, hosted annually by the Food Marketing Institute and North American Meat Institute, was FMI’s David Fikes, vice president of consumer community affairs and communications.

“We can all agree that consumers are confused about GMOs,” Fikes said. “And that consumer confusion is justified.”

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 (GE), genetically modified (GM) and genetically modified organism (GMO) refer to the highly technical process of taking the gene for a specific characteristic from one organism and transferring it to another,” Fikes explained. Or more simply put, “A GMO is a crop that has very specific changes made to its DNA – usually having one or two genes added or silenced to achieve a desired trait.”

The confusion about GMOs is everywhere. GMO can refer to the process but also the products that result from the process, Fikes said.

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

While the GMO debate is currently a polarizing topic, Fikes explained there is a between consumer concern for GMOs and their desire for labeling. “The ‘right to know what’s in your food’ argument is getting more traction,” Fikes said. Regardless of whether consumers describe themselves as someone who “would not avoid GMOs,” “would avoid but don’t currently avoid GMOs” or “currently avoid GMOs”  more than 60 percent of each type of those consumers think there should be GMO labeling versus the banning of GMOs.

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

-          All GMO crops (including corn, soybeans and sugar beets) have been evaluated by the US Dept. of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and 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 GMOs. Although most animals are fed with GMO ingredients including corn and soybeans, there is no evidence that eating ingredients from GMO plants affects animals’ meat or milk.

-          Organic meat and poultry is non-GMO and is from animals that are fed animal feed that does not contain ingredients from GMO plants.

“GM products have been in the US food supply since 1996 – hence we have years of practice that have shown no negative impact on animal or human health. Farm animals, the most carefully monitored animals on the planet, have been raised on GM 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 GM foods,” according to a statement made by Dr. Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State Univ.

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

In current news, Fikes reported that FMI, alongside the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the agriculture community are supporting the efforts of US Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts in introducing a bill that would:

-          create a national standard;

-          pre-empt state GMO labeling laws; and

-          call for education

Notice of mark-up of this legislation was released Feb. 19 and mark-up is expected by this Thursday.

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