BELLINGHAM — Before Stephen Trinkaus slapped “GMO Alert!” labels on dozens of products in his Bellingham grocery store, he asked customers what they wanted.
The choices were: do nothing, label products that contain genetically modified ingredients (GMO stands for genetically modified organisms) or get rid of the items altogether.
Customers overwhelmingly chose labels, which began appearing on Terra Organica’s shelves in March.
Trinkaus’ customers made their decision ahead of Washington voters, who are likely to decide this fall whether they want food companies to label products with genetically modified ingredients. That could change if the Legislature takes action on Initiative 522 in a special session, but it is not expected to.
Labeling supporters say GMOs raise health and environmental concerns because many are designed to withstand weed-killing herbicides. They also say not enough research has been made public about the plants.
Labeling opponents say such crops can boost the food supply and that genetic modification has taken place for centuries in the form of grafting trees and selecting crops for certain traits.
The GMO labeling issue is heating up nationally as well.
Washington is among more than 20 states with GMO labeling efforts under way after the rejection of a labeling proposition by California voters last year.
A nationwide labeling bill was introduced in Congress last week by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
Executives from big biotechnology developers Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical told Reuters they plan to fight back with a campaign to stem growing consumer concerns about GMOs.
In Washington, where the campaign is in its early stages, labeling supporters say they have raised more than $1 million so far, compared with about $1,000 for labeling opponents.
Meanwhile, some retailers are choosing voluntary GMO bans and labels.
In March, Whole Foods Market announced its suppliers have until 2018 to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. Trader Joe’s says it does not allow GMO ingredients in its private-label products, and some smallergrocers have begun eliminating or labeling GMO products as well.
Although most food is not genetically modified — for example, most whole fruits and vegetables are not — GMO ingredients can be found in a lot of processed products.
In the United States, 93 percent of the soybeans planted are genetically modified, according to the USDA. Similarly, 94 percent of cotton and 88 percent of field corn are genetically modified. More than 90 percent of canola is, according to researchers, as well as at least 85 percent of the sugar-beet crop.
That means most common ingredients made from those crops — noncane sugars, cottonseed oil, aspartame, lactic acid, modified food starch — are genetically modified.
Although the Gates Foundation and others are working on GMO crops with heightened nutritional benefits, those now in production are modified primarily to resist certain pesticides and herbicides. That means the crop will not die when sprayed with the herbicides and pesticides, but everything else — namely, weeds — will.
Some manufacturers test for GMO content after processing, which in many cases, such as with canola oil, can destroy the GMO markers. That makes it impossible to know if the ingredient is genetically modified, according to the Non-GMO Project.
Others send statements on company letterhead saying they have tested it. “They can’t give me a paper trail that’s convincing,” Trinkaus said.
That’s where the Non-GMO Project comes in.
Like organic certifiers before the USDA developed a standardized organic label, the project has compiled its own set of criteria to determine if a product is non-GMO.
Megan Westgate, executive director of the Bellingham-based nonprofit, started it in 2006 with interest from retailers. The organization, the primary third-party certifier of non-GMO ingredients on U.S. shelves, requires testing of ingredients using private laboratories before they are processed.
The cost of testing averages a few hundred dollars per product, depending on the number of ingredients and facilities in which they’re being produced.
Typically, the label, which says “Non-GMO Project Verified,” appears on the front of a package along with the project’s website address.