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OMG GMOs! How Can You Tell If Your Produce Is Genetically Modified?

The new AquAdvantage salmon is forcing a public debate about the safety of genetically modified foods, and what the public should know about them.

If you walk into a grocery store, how can you tell if something's been genetically modified? The current labeling is neither obvious nor uniform, but that could be changing.


Here's a quick background: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration oversee the regulation of bioengineered plants and animals, or foods transformed with novel enzymes, microbial insecticides, or bacteriophages that never would existed using traditional breeding technology. To date, the FDA has approved 120 varieties of bioengineered foods.

The vast majority of these are corn, soybeans, canola, and cottonseed, destined for processing plants where they’ll become sweeteners, starches, and oils. Only one food appears to have ended up in the produce aisle and stayed there: a Hawaiian papaya genetically modified to resist a viral pathogen that kills the plants.

To tell if a papaya has been modified, look at the fruit’s four-digit PLU code. PLUs starting with 8 indicate genetically-modified produce, so you might see 84395, 84396, 84394, or 84052 for papayas. (A 9 at the start indicates organic.)

But since PLUs are used mostly to manage produce inventories and help cashiers distinguish between different priced varieties of the same fruit, Kathy Means, vice president at the Produce Marketing Association, which oversees PLUs, told me, “It is not required that an organic item use the 9 in front of the number (e.g. a banana is 4011, an organic banana could be 94011 or just 4011). Why? Because this is for business information, not consumer communication. If I am a retailer, and I don’t charge a different price for organic bananas or don’t believe I need information based on a differentiation between organic and conventional bananas, I may not choose to use the 94011.”

Elsewhere in the supermarket and you’re essentially on your own. But one fish could be a game-changer.

The anticipated approval of Aqua Bounty’s genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon, which is being reviewed for human consumption, has ushered in a wave of legislation, including two pending bills in Congress—HR 521 and S 230—that call for an outright ban.

State legislators in 14 states, including California (AB 88), Oregon, Vermont, and Alaska, have introduced bills that would require additional labeling. The patchwork of state rules might spur a federal labeling law, Lyndsay Layton of the Washington Post reports. As Diane Urban, a Connecticut legislator told her:

“If each state makes it different, then the big corporations will be begging the federal government to step in and do regulation. That’s a strategy.”

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A similar strategy worked for mandatory calorie counting at chain restaurants. But labels identifying genetically modified foods could even be tantamount to a ban, given many people’s skepticism. Currently, however, there's no labeling at all. And as Mark Bittman wrote in The New York Times, “Without labeling, we have no say in the matter whatsoever.”

Top photo via "'UH Rainbow' Papaya: A High-Quality Hybrid with Genetically Engineered Disease Resistance." Bottom photo via Barrett & MacKay/Aqua Bounty Technologies.

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