WASHINGTON (AP) — Genetically modified foods have been around for years, but most Americans have no idea if they are eating them.
The Food and Drug Administration says they don’t need to be labeled, so the state of Vermont has moved forward on its own. On Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation making his state the first to require labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
What about the rest of the country? And does labeling matter?
There’s a lot of confusion about genetically modified foods and their safety.
Some people feel very strongly about GMOs. Opponents, who at times have protested in the streets, say consumers have the right to know whether their food contains GMOs. The Vermont law is their first major victory.
The food industry and companies that genetically engineer seeds have pushed back against the labeling laws, saying GMOs are safe and labels would be misleading.
“It’s really polarizing,” says New York University’s Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies. “There’s no middle ground.”
A look at the debate and some of the facts about genetically modified foods:
What they are
GMOs are not really a “thing,” Nestle says, and that’s hard for the average consumer to grasp. You can’t touch or feel a GMO.
Genetically modified foods are plants or animals that have had genes copied from other plants or animals inserted into their DNA. It’s not a new idea — humans have been tinkering with genes for centuries through selective breeding. Think dogs bred to be more docile pets, cattle bred to be beefier or tomatoes bred to be sweeter. Turkeys were bred to have bigger breasts — better for Thanksgiving dinner.
What’s different about genetically modified or engineered foods is that the manipulation is done in a lab. Engineers don’t need to wait for nature to produce a desired gene; they speed up the process by transferring a gene from one plant or animal to another.