In the opening scenes of a dystopian YouTube video gone viral, a scarecrow takes a job in the big city at a processed foods factory. All around him are signs that boast “All Natural” and “Farm Fresh,” but as he goes about his work he glimpses the machinery, chemicals and other scientific wizardry that go into creating the food.
“Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination,” Fiona Apple sings on the soundtrack.
The controversial video, produced by Denver-based Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle, has captured more than 6.9 million views since it was released last month, and is the latest salvo in the war over how food is produced and how much information is disclosed to consumers.
Lately, the most heated part of that debate has been about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in foods and efforts by companies to market them as “all natural” — a term that has no legal definition but that many consumers equate with products that do not contain artificial preservatives, flavorings or colors.
Early this year, Chipotle became the first national company to post labels on its Web site letting customers know which ingredients contain genetically modified organisms, whose DNA was manipulated in a lab. It lists soybean oil, white masa flour and corn products such as ground corn, corn germ and corn starch, and says it is trying to phase out the ingredients.
Whole Foods and Ben & Jerry’s quickly followed with their own pledges to become GMO-free; superstore Target said it would add a brand that will not use any genetically modified ingredients.
While most developed nations have required companies to label GMOs in foods for more than a decade, support for such a measure in the United States has just recently begun to gain traction in corporate boardrooms, state legislatures and courts.
“As public awareness is growing about GMOs, consumers are increasingly demanding to know what they are eating,” said Elizabeth O’Connnell, campaign director for Green America, an environmental group based in Washington.
O’Connell and others who support mandatory labeling say that there hasn’t been enough research into genetically modified foods to know if they harmful. Moreover, they argue, labeling would bring a layer of transparency to an industry dominated by a few powerful corporations.
A petition submitted to the Food and Drug Administration calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods garnered more than 1.2 million signatures, and several polls over the past few years have found that the vast majority of Americans — more than 90 percent — support labeling.
In June, Connecticut and Maine became the first states to pass legislation requiring labeling of GMO foods, though they are delaying implementation until more nearby states do the same. At least 20 other states are considering similar bills.
Critics of labeling laws say they are an unfair burden to businesses and retailers and may falsely alarm consumers by implying GM foods are dangerous even though such claims are not supported by scientific research.
Since the first genetically modified food — a delayed ripening tomato — hit U.S. supermarket shelves in 1994, the number of genetically modified products has increased dramatically, with little fanfare. There are only nine genetically modified crops on the market: corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini and yellow crookneck squash. But there are thousands of processed foods, an estimated 40 to 70 percent of them, that contain GMO ingredients.
Questions about the safety of GM foods for human health — the main concern for consumers — and the environment have persisted for years, and recent studies have done little to resolve the debate.
Worries about such crops spiked in September 2012 with the publication of a study by Gilles-Eric Séralini, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen in France. He claimed that rats who were fed corn that had been genetically modified to be resistant to the weedkiller Roundup developed tumors, multiple organ damage and suffered from premature death. Although the study has been widely criticized for both its design and conclusions, it energized opponents and brought GMOs into the spotlight again.
The World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and other medical and scientific bodies have said there is no evidence to support the idea that genetically modified foods are dangerous. Billions of people have eaten the foods for years without obvious evidence of a problem.
But in a dissenting opinion published last November, scientists involved in the AAAS statement argued that the absence of evidence of ill effects doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Problems would only show up in independent testing, and the FDA’s testing program for genetically modified foods is voluntary, they said.
The AAAS board’s stance on labeling “tramples the rights of consumers to make informed choices,” they wrote.
Scientific research groups say they are not convinced that generically modified crops in general are bad for the environment, but they have expressed concerns about the emergence of “superweeds” on the farms that have become herbicide-resistant.
Although Chipotle’s short film doesn’t explicitly single out any company or technology, the scarecrow, on the train back to the countryside, passes a sign with the factory’s name and the slogan “Feeding the World,” which bloggers and other online commentators have taken as a reference to biocrop giant Monsanto.
“Our goal was to ignite a conversation and make people a little more curious about where their food comes from and how it is prepared,” said Mark Crumpacker, the Chipotle executive who wrote the original story that was turned into the animated short.
One of the most controversial issues today regarding GMO foods is what exactly can be labeled “all natural.”
Unlike the term “organic,” there’s no legal definition. The FDA has yet to finalize a 12-year-old draft guidance document outlining the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.
In the absence of a definition, companies have been operating in a gray area when promoting their products.
Stamped on the side of bags of Frito-Lay SunChips is a prominent brown label designed to catch the eye of health-conscious shoppers. It says, “Made with all natural ingredients.”
Julie Gengo of Richmond, Calif., said that after studying the claims on the packaging and in print advertisements, she bought the chips once a month for more than a year until, she claims, she discovered she was duped.
She paid for “all natural products,” but she received those “made from corn that was genetically manipulated in a laboratory to exhibit traits that corn does not possess in nature,” Gengo said in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
A spokesman for Frito-Lay declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the company stands by the accuracy of its labels.
Gengo’s lawsuit is one of several dozen making their way through the courts against such brands as General Mills, Pepperidge Farms, PepsiCo, ConAgra and Cargill over similar claims.
The courts have been inconclusive on the issue. In one case, a judge punted, throwing the issue back to the FDA. In several others, the companies have sought to settle by offering cash payments to customers in order to avoid a precedent-setting verdict.
Barbara’s Bakery won preliminary approval from a federal court in June for a $4 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit regarding its “all natural” cereals and snacks. The company, which is paying up to $100 in reimbursements to each consumer, also said it would remove GMOs from its product line. PepsiCo settled a class-action suit in August that claimed Naked Juice contains genetically altered soy even though it advertised that it was made of “All Natural Fruit.” Each purchaser is eligible for up to $75 in the settlement, which is valued at $9 million.
Kim Richman, a New York-based attorney for the plaintiffs in the Frito-Lay case and several others, compares the furor over GMOs in “all natural” food products to the one over transfat in the 1990s, which resulted in the FDA requiring mandatory labeling, and a number of jurisdictions (including New York City and Montgomery County, Md.) passing laws to restrict or ban the use of polyunsaturated fat, which increases the risk of heart disease.
“American consumers have been kept in the dark too long,” Richman said.