GMOs

What is Wegmans position on GMOs?

We work to bring you a wide array of safe, delicious, healthy foods at consistent low prices. Here’s what reassures us about the safety of GMO foods currently available.

  1. All GMO seed companies have consulted with FDA on each potential product. According to FDA, the seed companies have satisfactorily completed every additional test that FDA has asked for, even though this consultation is not required by law.
  2. The testing protocols FDA uses are well established by a global collection of scientists from 168 nations. 

We believe that it is now time for the FDA, through an act of Congress if needed, to mandate (officially formalize) pre-market approval for all foods produced by GMO technology. This would assure us that all future GMO products will meet these well-recognized food safety standards no matter what country or company develops them. 

We have strongly supported a national GMO definition for labeling food products.  In 2016 the US Congress enacted a GMO labeling bill which will take a couple of years to implement. Eventually consumers will have consistent, non-misleading labeling no matter who distributes the product.

What are GMOs?

All food starts out as organisms, that is plants and animals whose traits have been modified since the dawn of agriculture. Selective breeding, cross pollination and hybridization are common ways farmers have improved their products. GMOs are different in that scientists have picked out a desired trait from one living thing, copied that trait and placed it into another living thing. This transfer would be highly unlikely in nature and can be between bacteria, plants, yeast, animals – any living thing! You'll also see GMO technology referred to as gene-splicing, bio-engineering or genetic engineering. Companies working in agriculture, as well as those in health care, energy and the environment, have invested in this technology to improve their products.

What are the most common GMO crops?

Over 80% of the nation's cropland is planted with GMO seed. In 2013 this included 97% of all sugar beets (which provide about 40% of the nation's granulated sugar), 93% of soybeans, 90% of cotton and 90% of field corn (but much less of sweet corn). Canada has a similar high percentage of GMO canola planted.

These crops are then fed to livestock, used for ethanol (corn), used for clothing (cotton) or become processed into a wide array of food ingredients.

Note: despite what you read in some diet books, wheat is not commercially available as a GMO. 

Why do farmers choose GMO seeds?

Introduced almost 20 years ago, GMOs continue to grow in popularity with American farmers. Although more expensive than conventional seeds, farmers tell of lower operating costs due to reduced use of diesel fuel, chemicals (like pesticides), equipment, and labor. Plus, they often get higher yields per acre. They defend GMOs as being better for the environment and farm worker safety while keeping food more affordable.

We've asked farmers about what it would take to switch them back to non-GMO seeds. They say that the premium paid for non-GMO crops would need to increase substantially. Otherwise they simply can't afford to make the change.

This begs the question about farmers who are not using GMOs, even though they could. For example, GMO wheat passed through the rigorous safety testing in 2004, but US wheat growers together decided not to plant it, so it never came to market. The farmers were concerned about GMOs getting into shipments to major customers in Europe where GMO wheat would be refused.

It's not all or nothing. Individual farmers may mix and match between GMO and non-GMO depending on their needs, resources and market demands.

Which products are likely to be GMO?

Although GMO field corn is also made into the ethanol that's mixed with gasoline to fuel our cars and GMO cotton is made into our clothing, towels and sheets, most GMO crops eventually come to the dinner table as ingredients in the foods we all eat. That's everything from cereal to dessert. GMO crops are processed to become oil, sugar, starch, syrup, fiber and protein ingredients as well as vitamins in foods and dietary supplements.

Field corn and soybeans serve as basic feed for livestock, therefore most of our meats, poultry, eggs, dairy products and farmed seafood use GMO grains for production. Beyond grains, much of the yeast and enzymes used to make everything from bread to cheese are from GMOs.

Fruits and veggies (fresh, canned or frozen) rarely involve GMOs.

Our fresh vegetable growers have pledged not to plant GMO varieties including sweet corn as well as green and yellow summer squash. Although specific varieties of GMO papaya, tomatoes and potatoes have been approved, Wegmans currently does not sell these. Customers ask about GMO edamame (fresh soybeans) but as far as we know, it does not exist.

Is there an easy way to avoid GMOs?

Yes. Look for the certified organic symbol. Organic foods cannot be grown from GMO seeds nor have any other GMO ingredient. Wegmans brand has a wide and growing array of delicious organic options. For ease of shopping, we bring many of them together in our Nature's Marketplace department. We also operate our own organic farm and partner with local growers on methods adopted at the farm.

To be clear, certified organic must be non-GMO, the same cannot be said for foods labeled as "natural."

Urban legend alert: You may have heard a tip to identify GMOs using the number on the sticker on fruits and veggies. See http://www.snopes.com/food/prepare/produce.asp. This idea was suggested by a trade association, but not implemented. That is, you cannot tell whether a product is GMO by checking the sticker on fruits and veggies or looking at the UPC number.

With so much GMO planted, isn't pollen drift likely?

Even though many GMO crops are self-pollinating, it wouldn't be a surprise to have small amounts of inadvertent GMO pollen reach non-GMO field corn or canola. However, we believe that folks who are handling certified organic do everything possible to limit this. Farmers tell us that the best way to control pollen drift is for GMO farmers and their organic farm neighbors to talk with each other about what they are planting to assure adequate buffers. Neighbors working together makes sense to us. 

How can GMO farmers tout environmental benefits?

University-based researchers have documented environmental advantages with some GMOs compared to either conventional or organic farming.

One common comparison is with weed control. Weeds can choke crops so non-GMO fields are plowed to help reduce weeds. This practice has downsides for the environment. It results in soil erosion, reducing nutrients in the fields, increasing pollution in waterways, and releasing carbon from the soil which leads to increased greenhouse gases. Plowing requires fuel to drive heavy farm equipment over the crop rows, creating even more greenhouse gases. Planting GMO seeds resistant to Round-Up or other weed killers lets farmers avoid plowing. Here's how. Farmers let everything emerge in the spring and then spray the field with Round-Up. The weeds are killed but the plants with the GMO trait keep growing and crowd out any potential weeds. One GMO soybean farmer described the impact as 50% less spent on diesel fuel last year. However, this benefit has ramped up the use of Round-Up, also known as glyphosate, to unprecedented levels. Round-Up, favored by gardeners, replaces other weed killers which are as much as 100 times more persistent in the environment. But farmers have been using so much Round-Up that some weeds have become resistant to it and that could cause problems down the road.

How can it be safe to eat corn with a built-in insecticide?

Great question! The short answer is that GMO corn is safe to eat. The leaves, roots, stalks or ears are engineered to produce very specific proteins that humans can’t absorb. These proteins are toxic to targeted insects but we digest them just like any other protein. Read on to learn more.

In the case of GMO corn, scientists engineered the plants to produce proteins from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (known as Bt). When certain caterpillars and beetles eat these proteins, they stop feeding and die. However, humans can't directly absorb Bt proteins which are instead safely digested. The safety of Bt crops to adults, children and the environment is beyond question according to international authorities. Without this GMO trait, corn plants need repeated treatment with other insecticides to avoid the often 50% loss of the crop.

It's ironic since Bt has been the poster-child of "natural" insecticides, preferred over chemicals because of extreme insect specificity and complete biodegradability. It only kills insects feasting on the crop, not honeybees or important natural enemies and has been sprayed by organic growers on crops for decades. But spraying Bt is limited because the leaves, stalk, roots and ears have to be thoroughly covered and treated repeatedly to get good control. 

What is the connection between gluten sensitivity and GMOs?

Gluten is a protein naturally present in wheat, rye and barley, none of which are available as GMOs. However, some have over-laid the rapid increase in gluten-related diagnosis with a similar increase in GMOs and wonder if there is a connection. One line of reasoning involves "leaky gut" and the idea that GMOs somehow increase this syndrome which then allows gluten and potential allergens to pass into the blood stream and trigger an immune response.

To date, we have not seen research that supports this conclusion. The only evidence-based therapy for gluten sensitivity is complete avoidance of gluten. Also, consider that celiac authorities tell us that the rate of disease is approximately the same across the world, about 1 in 100. If GMOs were to blame you'd expect much higher rates in countries that rely heavily on GMOs, like the USA. That's not the case.

In 2013, Wegmans Nutritionist Trish Kazacos, RDN, had the privilege of interviewing Alessio Fasano, MD, Medical Director for the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Fasano was lead author of the landmark study “Prevalence of celiac disease in at-risk groups in the United States”: a large multicenter study that was published in 2003 in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Before the study, celiac disease was considered to be rare in the United States. However, after screening more than 13,000 people in 32 states the study showed that 1 out of 133 individuals, roughly 3 million Americans, have Celiac disease. And, an estimated 83% of those individuals are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. Below is a snippet of the interview in which the worldwide prevalence of celiac disease was discussed.

Trish: A question we are often asked is, why are more people in the US being diagnosed with Celiac disease, and how does this compare to other countries?

Dr. Fasano: There are two reasons. One is increased awareness by healthcare professionals. If you go just back only 10 years before we published our study, Celiac disease was a neglected condition in the US. We knew it was something that was causing GI problems but our knowledge at that time was it was confined to Europe. In only 10 years we went from completely oblivious to it being a hot area in the field of gastroenterology.

Second, there is an increased prevalence of Celiac disease over time that parallels similar trends in other autoimmune diseases. In other words, we’re in the midst of an epidemic. Our data which has been corroborated by many others seems to suggest that that Celiac disease has doubled in prevalence every 15 years. Only half a century ago it was much more rare than now. The reason why this is happening is only partially known. The US was supposed to be different than other countries when we made the statement that it was rare here. Now we realize we’re in a global village of health issues including Celiac disease, and therefore its prevalence in the United States is very, very similar to what is recorded in other countries not only Europe, but now Belize, North Africa, South America, and so on and so forth—so we’re not special.

Why don't Wegmans Brand Organic products carry the non-GMO seal?

The Non-GMO Project Verified seal is showing up on a growing number of products (almost 900 at last count) in our stores. You'll find most of these in our Nature's Marketplace section.

We've considered putting Wegmans brand certified organic products through the Non-GMO Verified Project, a voluntary process. Yet, we suspect that the seal would be redundant since GMOs are not allowed in certified organic products. That is, we can't tell if the extra cost to our suppliers (which would mean higher prices) would provide any significant benefit beyond the organic certification process.

Wegmans recently met with representatives of the Non-GMO Verified Project. They agree that the presence of some GMO is possible either from pollen drift or shared production facilities. That's why they use the term "non GMO" instead of "GMO Free." They occasionally find levels in organic ingredients that are above their threshold (1% or more GMO), though most of their testing results are far lower.

Why doesn't Wegmans do GMO testing on organics and other products?

We believe that testing at the retail level has limited value. That's because GMO tests require the presence of genetic material (DNA). But finished products may have no DNA present! That's the case with the most common highly processed ingredients (oils, sugars, syrups, starches, enzymes and other additives) made from GMOs. According to the FDA & USDA, the meat, milk and eggs from GMO-fed animals are no different, genetically or otherwise. In these products DNA testing would be meaningless.

A problem with testing at the supplier level is that it's always a snapshot in time with a selected sample. Ingredients might be from non-GMO sources at certain times of the year, but not other times.

All this convinces us that a completely separate stream of ingredients, with a paper trail of documentation, is needed. And that's exactly what USDA organic certification provides.

How can Wegmans use GMO soy or canola in certified organic products?

The national organic standards are clear: GMOs are prohibited in any product that has the word "organic" on the front panel. So, not only are 100% organic products and 70% organic products non-GMO, but products that claim to be "made with organic ingredients" should not contain anything derived from GMOs. Click here to learn more.

Rest assured that we do not use GMO ingredients in organic products nor do farmers feed GMO crops to animals that produce our organic eggs and milk. Sometimes we can't source every ingredient as organic and need to fill in with a non-organic ingredient. As stated above, that fill-in ingredient cannot be from a GMO!

On the other hand, just because a product contains one or two organic ingredients does not mean that the rest of the ingredients are non-GMO. The rule only kicks in when an organic claim is made on the front-of-package or on signage.

What about other concerns with GMOs?

It seems that GMOs really stands for "Got Many Opinions." Check the blogosphere and you'll find that for every pro-GMO position, there is a counter view. We regularly attend seminars where this plays out. Some wonder why so many other countries restrict GMOs. Others don’t trust those who profit the most from these patented crops. They wonder if too much power has been consolidated into a few seed companies. They see GMOs as part of an agricultural system focused on a few crops at the expense of greater bio-diversity. Others believe that inserting a single trait is not as simple as it sounds and that we may not understand the full range of interactions that are impacted.

On the other hand, some are just as concerned that farmers will be forced to return to conventional seeds which they see as a step backwards. They point out that GMO grains may in fact be less risky since prevention of insect damage results in less aflatoxin, a cancer-causing substance that's natural, but deadly. And finally, they worry that without modern technologies, like GMOs, we will struggle to feed a hungry planet.

Does Wegmans carry GMO salmon?

Wegmans does not currently offer GMO salmon (sometimes called Genetically Engineered salmon), nor do we have plans to do so. In fact, there is no GMO salmon available for purchase or sale anywhere. Some retailers have signed a pledge saying they will never carry GMO salmon, but signing pledges is not something we ever do.

None of our current suppliers are interested in producing GMO salmon. And, our specifications for farm-raised salmon would not permit GMO salmon to be substituted without our knowledge.

The major advantage of GMO salmon is that it will grow in half the time of traditional farmed salmon. If it’s less expensive to raise, the retail price could be lower. That might foster consumer demand, however today there is not even a product available for us to sell, nor are customers asking us for it. That's why we have no plans to carry GMO salmon. 

How do I learn more about safety and other perspectives on GMOs?

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible to scientifically assure the safety of our foods including those from genetic engineering (GMOs). Click here to learn more about how the FDA views this technology.

A group of 23 natural/organic food companies banded together to create the non-profit Non-GMO Project. Click here to read about their concerns, including a point-counterpoint, along with a complete listing of products that carry their seal.

Six major GMO seed companies will facilitate a response to your question at GMO Answers. Answers are provided by university faculty members who are expert in their particular area. Readers can vote for which questions they want to see addressed first.

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