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Sierra Club's food scare ignores the real risks

14.jul.99, Doug Powell, National Post

Stories based on soundbites rather than sound science are proliferating, and groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are masters, throwing off lines like, "The Gerber baby isn't smiling today. Unlabeled genetically altered products leave parents little choice but to have their children used as guinea pigs in this corporate experiment with our food." Please.

14.jul.99, Doug Powell, National Post
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday warned consumers yet again that raw alfalfa, clover and radish sprouts can cause foodborne illness, after some 200 people were sickened with salmonella bacteria in three separate outbreaks in just the first half of 1999. On Saturday, the FDA issued a nationwide warning not to consume unpastuerized orange juice distributed by by Sun Orchard Inc. of Tempe, Arizona. So far, 52 cases of salmonella poisoning in Washington state have been linked to the unpasteurized orange juice. Other states, as well as B.C. and Alberta, have reported dozens of additional cases. While American regulators and media outlets aggressively highlight serious risks in the food supply, Canadians were treated to the latest rantings -- and anyone who watched the Ottawa press conference Friday would say rant was a mild descriptor -- about the alleged dangers of genetically engineered foods. There they were, representatives of the Sierra Club of Canada, wraping themselves in the cloak of safe food while railing against the demons of multinational corporations, complicit government and genetic engineering of foods. The group was apparently launching an information campaign to inform consumers in supermarkets in seven Canadian cities that the food they may be eating is -- gasp -- genetically engineered. The actions by the Sierra Club on Friday were reminiscent of the American Greenpeace back in June when they released a report which showed that the leading U.S. baby food maker and two producers of medical foods were selling products that contain genetically engineered foods. The American response was a collective, so what? And rightly so. Stories based on soundbites rather than sound science are proliferating, and groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are masters, throwing off lines like, "The Gerber baby isn't smiling today. Unlabeled genetically altered products leave parents little choice but to have their children used as guinea pigs in this corporate experiment with our food." Please.
All genetically engineered foods in Canada undergo years of rigorous testing and evaluation, including potential risks to the environment and to human and animal health, before they can be used or sold in Canada. Since 1995, farmers in Ontario and throughout Canada have increasingly chosen to pay extra for genetically-enhanced corn, soy, canola and potato seed because, quite simply, it works: increased yields on the same amount of land, reductions in chemical use, more efficient farming systems. However, the attempt to improve any food can possibly lead to unexpected consequences. For example, in the laboratory, in one instance, a human allergen was transferred from one crop to another. During the preliminary assessment process, the company immediately discontinued the experiment. And that is why Canada has a strict approval process, to ensure that such products do not reach the marketplace.
Are there environmental risks? Yes, but they are small and can be managed. That is why Ontario corn producers who grow genetically engineered Bt-corn are, for example, required to devote 20 per cent of their acreage to non-Bt varieties. The goal is to maximize the benefits of a particular agricultural tool or product -- the agricultural use of antibiotics, agricultural biotechnology, a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables -- while vigorously minimizing known risks based on the best available science. But most galling about Friday s performance was that one newspaper headline refered to the Sierra Club as safe food activists.
If they were really concerned with the health of Canadians and safe food, the Sierra Club would be launching a campaign to inform consumers about the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who get sick each year -- and the few who die -- from the food and water they consume, not one of which has anything to do with genetic engineering.
For example, fresh fruits and vegetables -- even, if not especially, the organic kind -- are increasingly recognized as a significant source of foodborne illness. Yet a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is actively promoted as the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. And it is. The challenge, again, is to move beyond the infantile recognition of a risk (The sky is falling! The sky is falling!) to robust management systems that maximize benefits and minimize risks. We all know to thoroughly cook raw meats, to handle them carefully, and to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen. But fresh fruits and vegetables seem so natural, so benign, that many consumers rarely give them a second thought. Indeed, a 1998 survey found that fresh fruits and vegetables ranked at the bottom of the worry list for Canadian consumers. Yet outbreak after outbreak tells us we should worry about fresh fruits and vegetables; imported or not. The very characteristic that affords dietary benefit -- fresh -- also creates microbiological risk: because they are not cooked, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is a possible source of contamination. Several Ontario groups have responded to this challenge. I began working with the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association (OGVGA) almost two years ago to help their farmers deliver high-quality, greenhouse-grown tomatoes and cumbers that are microbiologically safe. We recognized that many of these pathogens simply cannot be washed off; they need to be controlled on the farm, and at all subsequent steps to the kitchen table. By employing the principles of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, such risks can be identified, and control steps enacted. In conjunction with the greenhouse vegetable producers, we developed a plan that all producers can follow, to reduce the risk of microbial contamination. And last month, OGVGA, with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, hired a full-time person to visit every farm over the next year to ensure that the guidelines are being followed; to ensure that producers understand their responsibility to produce microbiologically safe food; to ensure that the guidelines are not just another document gathering dust on a shelf. But it's not enough to say farmers are doing the right thing. They need to prove it. Microbiological data will be collected over the next year, to prove that Ontario-grown greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers are safe. If results suggest otherwise, the problem will be identified, and changes enacted. Those are the basics of a safe food program, unlike the hysterical meanderings of groups like the Sierra Club.
But even if science says that genetically engineered foods and conventional produce are safe, consumers worry about other things and need choice.
Consumer choice is a fundamental value for shoppers, irrespective of science. Foods in Canada are labeled on the basis of health and nutritional data, but there are a variety of other voluntary labeling systems based on religious preference (kosher, halal), growing preference (organic) or nutritional preference (low-fat, low-salt). A market for biotechnology-free foods, labeled as such, may also emerge to meet consumer demand. However, many consumers will continue to make food selections based on taste, price and nutritional content before other considerations. Labeling guidelines must accommodate all of these values.
Farmers, processors, distributors and others in the farm-to-fork continuum are constantly striving to improve the safety, quality and efficiency of the Canadian food supply. Genetic engineering is one additional tool that, with vigilance and oversight, can help achieve those goals.