Deciphering fruit and vegetable labels for Frankenfoods
A recent issue of one of my vegetarian cooking magazines suggested that the PLU (Price Look Up) codes printed on those annoyingly sticky labels on fruits and vegetables offer a way to tell whether the food is conventional, organic or GMO.
GMO, as you probably know, refers to Genetically Modified Organisms, known in Europe as Frankenfoods because of fears that mad scientists may be unwittingly or uncaringly unleashing true monsters upon us. (For recent news on this issue, check out Utne Reader's excerpt of the forthcoming book by Texas ag activist Jim Hightower, called Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush. Hightower's famous for writing Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times back in 1978. Though out of print now, that book kicked off a nationwide conversation about what was happening to our food systems.)
But I digress.
Concerning food labeling, the issue is whether you can tell how the fruits and veggies for sale at the local grocery store were raised by deciphering the codes, and the answer is a resounding maybe. Here is the key as certified by the International Federation for Food Standards (note that the wording is mine, not theirs):
- Four-digit code - A conventionally grown crop. Conventional could mean that the foodstuff has been repeatedly doused with one poison or another -- or not. But at least its genes should not have been artificially altered (though one wonders how many food execs are doing hard time in stir for violating the rules).
- Five-digit code starting with the number 9 - Organically grown in compliance with the USDA standards.
- Five-digit code starting with the number 8 - GMO foods. (Why didn't they just use 666?)
But before you think you can rely on the fact that foods without the dreaded "8" are not Frankenfoods, you should know that the labeling system in the United States is voluntary. And that means growers who want you to know they are doing good things - basically, the organic folks - are probably quick to slap a "9" on that rutabaga you are scrutinizing.
But I suspect only a truly dumb Frankenfood producer would be likely to warn you off with an "8" on that great-looking tomato. (The logic seems impeccable: "What they don't know might hurt them someday, but telling them would hurt our sales today.")
We at Sustainable Farmer have developed our own label symbol for GMO foods that we would like to see adopted (see above). And consumers in this country had better start making their concerns known soon, because, as Professor Paul Weyrich notes in his new book Labeling Genetically Modified Food, "Meat and dairy products from GM animals are under development. These new foods make the welfare of animals an issue relevant to the debate about labeling. Labeling gives consumers an important voice concerning biotechnology's application to food production."
Even people who think the GM foods themselves may not be particularly harmful to the people who eat them are worried that promises to keep GMO crops contained continue to fail, potentially threatening the environment. Back in 1999, Beatle Paul McCartney felt forced to remove all soybeans from his wife Linda's vegetarian line of foods because he could not find any that were not tainted by traces of GMO crops. If we don't act now to force transparency, will we ever be able to put the genetic genie back in the bottle if we find the critics are right? The Transparency Policy Project lists labeling foods for GMO content as a priority in helping consumers know the truth about the products they buy.
In the short term, WikiHow offers a great page on how to avoid GMO foods. It starts by giving you a crash course in the kinds of food likely to be genetically modified (soybeans, corn, sugarbeets, rapeseed, rice), as well as providing advice such as sticking to whole foods when you can.