Health care giant Kaiser Permanente raised eyebrows last month when it published an article in one of its newsletter speaking out against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the U.S. food supply. Little research had been done on the long-term health effects of GMOs, the article cautioned, and consumers should limit exposure to them by avoiding processed and fast food, and by choosing organic or “non-GMO” labeled produce.
Controversy over GMOs is nothing new: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that genetically modified foods are nutritionally the same as their conventionally grown counterparts; therefore, food manufacturers are not required to disclose whether a product contains them. Watchdog groups and some scientists have questioned whether GMOs might pose risks either to consumers or to the environment, although no organization as large as Kaiser--one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health care plans--has taken a stand against them.
Kaiser’s official position, however, is that it has no official position. According to a statement released by the company, the article in question--published in a Fall 2012 newsletter mailed to Kaiser Permanente members in Washington and Oregon--reflected the personal views of the staff nutritionist who wrote it.
“We believe it is important to share information with our members on a wide range of topics related to health care and health, but we do not take an organizational position on every issue,” the statement reads. “Kaiser Permanente believes the ongoing research and debate on bioengineered foods, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is important. We also recognize there are important conversations about related initiatives and propositions.”
Still, even unofficial advice from such a trusted name in health care is a step in the right direction, says David Katz, MD, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. While Dr. Katz doesn’t advocate avoiding or eliminating all GMOs in foods, he does welcome discussions that will help educate consumers about all sides of the debate.
“Public interest runs very high and passions run very hot with this issue, and what we need are more sober assessments by independent third parties,” he says. “What’s nice about Kaiser is that they’re based in health--they’re not selling food--and they have the resources to generate good, objective information.”
Most corn and soybean crops grown in the United States are genetically modified, meaning their DNA has been altered to make them more resistant to viruses, bacteria, or insects. GMOs allow farmers to produce more, healthier crops, and to sell them at more affordable prices; several studies, however, have suggested that they may also cause health problems in rats (although these results are also hotly debated). GMO labeling is mandatory in the European Union and several other countries, but the United States has yet to pass any such legislation.
“I think people have a right to know what’s in their food; I think it would be shocking for people to realize how widespread GMOs really are, but that’s a shock that people need to get,” says Dr. Katz. “But they also need to know that the shouldn’t be freaking out and making GMOs public enemy number one.”
“Perspective is very important,” Dr. Katz adds, saying that any risk from GMOs is minimal compared to risks related to other public health concerns. “If you’re worried about soybeans, but you’re the kind of person who smokes and doesn’t exercise or wear your seatbelt, you’re sort of missing the forest for the trees.”