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Are Biotech Foods Safe to Eat?

Most Americans have eaten genetically modified foods without knowing it, but are they safe?

WebMD Feature

Genetically modified food has quietly become second nature in the U.S., and it may surprise you just how many foods you are eating that you never knew contained a genetically modified ingredient.

Experts say 60% to 70% of processed foods on U.S. grocery shelves have genetically modified ingredients. The most common genetically modified foods are soybeans, maize, cotton, and rapeseed oil. That means many foods made in the U.S. containing field corn or high-fructose corn syrup, such as many breakfast cereals, snack foods, and the last soda you drank; foods made with soybeans (including some baby foods); and foods made with cottonseed and canola oils could likely have genetically modified ingredients. These ingredients appear frequently in animal feed as well.

If this shocks you, a new USDA-funded survey shows you're not alone. Researchers from the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers' Cook College found that only 52% of Americans realized that genetically modified foods are sold in grocery stores and only 26% believed that they have ever eaten genetically modified foods -- a modest 6% increase since 2001.

But what exactly is genetically modified food? Is it safe to eat? Why isn't it labeled in the U.S.? The European Union and the U.S. are boxing it out.

The U.S. government's position: Genetically engineered crops are safe, resist disease better, and can provide much-needed food in starving nations.

The EU position: Keep it out. We prefer organic, which is much healthier. The risk of genetically modified foods to health and the environment outweigh the benefits. Only the multinational biotech companies will benefit, dominating the world food supply and squeezing out traditional farmers.

The U.S. is the largest producer of genetically modified crops.

More than a dozen countries around the world have latched on to the technology, including Argentina, Canada, China, Australia, India, and Mexico.

'Frankenfood' Fears

The term genetically modified food (also known as biotech or genetically engineered food) refers to crop plants that have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits, such as resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. Experts say this science, like any other, has no guarantees. Risks include:

  • Introducing allergens and toxins to food
  • Accidental contamination between genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Adversely changing the nutrient content of a crop
  • Creation of "super" weeds and other environmental risks

Benefits include:

  • Increased pest and disease resistance
  • Drought tolerance
  • Increased food supply

Is Regulation Too Soft?

So you might ask, what's the big deal? The U.S. government wouldn't allow a product on the market without strict testing and approval, right? It seems genetically modified foods are a bit of a scientific anomaly, a creature that U.S. regulation agencies aren't quite sure how to efficiently manage.

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