LIKE MANY of the unfortunates who live outside the delivery area for Tesco’s online supermarket, I still have to buy my groceries the old- fashioned way. The new EC legislation on labelling for all genetically modified foods has made my shopping trips a lot more entertaining – albeit longer – since it seems to take the best part of the evening to read the labels on my usual basket-load.
I’ve been an avid label reader since learning that food manufacturers have more than 40 ways of disguising MSG (a toxic substance that gives you headache but appears in hundreds of food products). In recognition of the semantic creativity of the food industry, a campaign was set up (http://www.truthinlabeling.org) to provide consumers with clear interpretation of labelling mumbo-jumbo. Food labels are a source of mystery to most food scientists, not to mention us consumers. However, things get worse with genetically engineered food labels, as they bring a new meaning to the word “obscure”. Since the notion of being a guinea pig in the largest food experiment in the history of humankind is mildly unappealing, many consumers are bringing their magnifying glasses to the supermarket in an attempt to figure out what is lurking in those tinned tomatoes.
The modified food revolution is great for the farmers but not so good for consumers, who may find out that those new food additives can cause allergies, or auto-immune diseases and contain small but potentially harmful amounts of toxins.
Unpredictable side effects are occurring in many genetically modified food products and, unless you studied the labels, you wouldn’t know that some alien DNA disguised as fillers appears in many burgers, margarine, vegetarian meat substitutes and even baby products (http://www.naturallaw.org.nz/genetics/g-danger.htm).
It is estimated that some 60 per cent of food on supermarket shelves has been tinkered with directly or indirectly, and only a big magnifying glass and a PhD in genetic engineering will guide you through the confusion.
For thousands of years we have relied on our senses for food selection. Our ancestors survived by perfecting their senses of smell, touch and taste, to be able to detect a poisonous berry, dodgy meat or lethal mushroom. Today, though, you could not tell the difference between two identical tomatoes, one genetically engineered with bacteria-derived kanamycin and the other from a wholesome, organic farm in Devon. They look the same but can have very different effects on your long-term health, or even your children’s health.
That means a trip down the supermarket aisles and physical contact with food is simply an obsolete way of shopping for groceries in this new, information-rich age. Now it is the ability to process complex information that will drive the survival of the fittest, and online ordering from home or office will allow you more time to think and read the labels.
Technology may provide a solution to the problem. A new hand-held scanning device will soon be available that allows you to input your food content preferences. It will run a scan of your selected labels and deliver a Yes/No verdict on suspicious items, screening those found to be unacceptable out of your basket. The authors of the software are also working on an online version of the system, which should be available by the time Tesco rolls out its nationwide home delivery.
The software would still require grocers to provide full label descriptions of their online items (not a current practice, but easy to implement). It would also require them to develop a standard labelling system, something the Ministry of Agriculture has been working on for a long time (http://www.maff.gov.uk).
So soon you will be able to send your “foodbot” to your online grocer to sniff out which type of bacon comes from a decent pig and which has been puffed up with some alien DNA.
However, to avoid the situation in which your choice will merely be between more or less foreign DNA in your shopping trolley, you should take an active role in one of the many safe food campaigns. Most of these are based in the US, where food manufacturers are a lot more powerful and have much deeper pockets for lobbying the regulators. Once something is approved over the pond, the likelihood of those food components arriving here in a pure or disguised form is relatively high.
One worthy campaign can be found at http://www.safe-food.org. It focuses on crop segregation, labelling transparency and legislation to regulate new food technologies. You can also read about and join another campaign at http://www.online.sfsu.edu/rone/gedanger.htm, where there is are helpful instructions on how to shop to avoid genetically engineered foods.
You can e-mail me with your comments on the new food revolution at firstname.lastname@example.org