In 2013, Chipotle became the first restaurant chain to label items that contained genetically modified organisms. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Chipotle’s decision to prepare only food that does not contain genetically modified ingredients is adding fuel to an ongoing debate about the health and safety of these foods.

The Mexican-style restaurant chain cited three reasons for removing such foods from its menu, saying on its Web site that scientists are still studying the long-term implications of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs; that the foods can damage the environment; and that “Chipotle should be a place where people can eat food made with non-GMO ingredients.”

But experts contend that GMO-containing foods being grown in the United States are no riskier than conventional foods. The “growing international consensus” among scientific organizations is that foods made from currently approved genetically modified crops are safe to eat, said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington.

“This is not an ultra-hazardous technology,” Jaffe said. Although every new food product must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, “all current applications are safe,” he said.

How GM foods are made

Genetically modifying an organism involves inserting genes from one species into the DNA of another, in order to produce desirable traits, such as being resistant to pests.

Eight genetically modified crops are grown widely in the United States: corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, zucchini, squash and papaya. In fact, more than 90 percent of the country’s total acreage of corn, soybeans, cotton and sugar beets comes from seeds that have at least one genetically engineered trait, Jaffe said.

And foods containing GMOs are tough to avoid because genetically modified crops are found in processed foods such as high-fructose corn syrup, canola oil and soybean oil, he said.

Chipotle previously used genetically modified corn and soy as ingredients in its tortillas and cooking oil. Now, the company says it has replaced these with ingredients that are not genetically modified, such as rice bran oil and sunflower oil.

But people may not know that plant-based oils don’t contain any DNA or protein, Jaffe noted. That means that genetically modified soybean oil and non-genetically modified soybean oil are “biologically and chemically identical,” he said.

At any rate, Chipotle’s menu will not be completely GMO-free. According to its Web site, the company will still sell soft drinks that contain sweeteners made from genetically modified corn, along with meat and dairy products from animals that may be fed genetically modified grains.

Are these foods safe?

Foods derived from genetically engineered plants must meet the same safety standards as foods from traditionally bred plants, according to the Food and Drug Administration. (No food products from genetically engineered animals are currently on the market.)

“GM foods are safe if they have undergone the proper risk assessment to be put on the market,” said Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety scientist with the World Health Organization in Geneva. “So far, all the GM products on the market [in the United States] have undergone such risk assessments,” he said.

Still, some consumer groups have argued that products containing genetically modified ingredients should be labeled as such, and Ben Embarek said he favors giving people such information. “Consumers are the ones who are buying the products. . . . Therefore, they should have all the information in front of them,” Ben Embarek said.

In 2013, Chipotle became the first restaurant chain to label items that contained GMOs. Jaffe said discussions about genetically modified ingredients seem to overlook other aspects of the nutrition of the chain’s meals, most of which have more than 1,000 calories and most of the daily allowance of sodium, according to a nutritional information calculator on the chain’s Web site.

“If they really wanted to improve people’s health, they should worry a lot more about the salt and fat in their burritos than a little bit of soybean oil and a little cornmeal,” Jaffe said.

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