Does this food contain genetically modified organisms?
That’s what many consumers, including overseas trading partners, want to know about the food they’re buying.
A prime example of that is the recent initiative in California, dubbed the “Right to Know” campaign, which calls for food manufacturers in the Golden State to identify genetically engineered ingredients on the labels of food products sold in that state.
With almost as many as 1 million signatures gathered on the petition in time for the April 22 deadline, organizers predict that the measure will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. (The state requires just over a half million valid signatures for an initiative to qualify to be on the ballot.)
On a global level, 40 countries, including all of Europe, Japan and China, require labeling of foods, or of certain foods, containing GMOs. The U.S. has resisted labeling, and in 1992 the Food and Drug Administration established a policy declaring there is no substantial or material difference between genetically engineered foods and foods that haven’t been genetically engineered.
Sleuthing for GMOs
The question arises: How in the world do scientists determine if foods contain GMOs?
There are technologies that can do that, of course. But the conventional method, referred to as a PCR system (polymerase chain reaction), has some distinct disadvantages. It requires complex DNA extraction procedures, relatively expensive equipment, and assays that need to be carried out in a laboratory. It has also proven difficult to design cost-effective portable devices for PCR.
In what has been called “a major breakthrough” in GMO detection and monitoring, scientists at Lumora Ltd. in the United Kingdom have developed a method they say is far more practical because it’s simpler, quicker, more precise and less expensive than PCR.
An article about this breakthrough, which uses a combination of two technologies — bioluminescence and isothermal DNA amplification — was recently published in BioMed Central’s open access journal, BMC Biotechnology.
Lumora’s bioluminescence technology, known as BART, uses luciferase, the same enzyme that lights up fireflies As part of the detection procedure, the luciferase is coupled to DNA detection so as to light up when it detects specific DNA and RNA sequences. By using DNA signals that are specific to genetically modified crops, the system can detect even low levels of contamination.
Lumora CEO Laurence Tisi told Food Safety News that compared to a lab-based PCR system, “Lumora’s hardware is probably a lot less than 1/10 the cost.”
He also said that Lumora’s new system can detect even very low levels of GMO ingredients.
Another advantage of this technology is that GMO detection can be done out in the field as well as in a food processing center.
As such, it may offer the advantage of being a “field-ready” solution for monitoring genetically modified crops and their interaction with wild plants or non-GM crops, as well as in food processing facilities.
Tisi said that the technology detects DNA and because all plants have DNA, it can detect GMO from any plants.
This comes as good news for those who want, or require, labeling for genetically engineered crops or for processed foods that contain genetically engineered crops. While genetically modified foods may be relatively safe by science-based approaches to risk assessment, the issue of labeling GMO foods is about public confidence and also about market protection.
Tisi said that people want to know what they are eating, for all sorts of reasons. Being able to assess where their food comes from from has value to consumers, buyers and others, he said, since it means “they can be confident they are getting what they pay for.”
He pointed out that where there are regulations on food labeling, the producers need to be sure that their products comply with regulations. This varies from country to country, but in order to be able to state that a crop is non-GMO it is necessary to show that less than a certain percentage of the product contains any GMOs. In the European Union, for example, that percentage is 0.9 percent.
Lumora’s new technology can recognize GM presence as low as 0.1 percent in corn.
“In fact,” Tisi said, “there are DNA signatures in plants that can even tell you what variety the crop is and sometimes even where it came from.”
The work that Lumora has done on GMO detection was part of a much bigger EU-wide consortium known as Co-Extra, a project that looks at the co-existence and traceability of genetically modified crops.
“This project came to be as a direct consequence of the desire to better regulate GMO material in the EU,” Tisi said.
When it comes to GMOs, the challenge for growers, processors and buyers is that even if a crop hasn’t been genetically engineered, it can be contaminated, often through pollen drift or cross-pollination, by a crop that has.
For wheat growers in Washington state, for example, that can spell the doom of their livelihoods since most of the wheat grown in that state is exported to countries that won’t accept shipments that contain any traces of GMOs.
For organic growers and processors, GMO contamination of their food is equally troubling since any food or food items that contain GMOs are not allowed to carry USDA’s “organic” label.
While concerns continue to swirl around whether foods containing GMOs can be harmful to the environment and human health, Tisi said that one common health concern is whether or not a GMO crop could produce an allergen.
On the food-safety front, Lumora’s GMO-detection technology can also be used to test for and identify pathogens such as Salmonella, which Tisi said “can have an enormous economic, and indeed, human impact.”
He also predicts that increasingly the focus will also be on livestock, “since there could be more of a shift towards testing animals themselves to determine if they are carriers of pathogens such E. coli O157, as well as Campylobacter in chickens.”
“More testing on the livestock and their environment may help prevent down-stream contamination in food-processing,” he said.
Backing him up on that, the UK’s Food Standards Agency is calling for proposals and research and development to increase molecular surveillance of Campylobacter in chickens, which is the most common source of bacterial food poisoning in the U.K.
Lumora’s technology has been out-licensed for certain applications, but Tisi said he couldn’t comment on this except to say that the company would welcome commercialization partners for the GMO tests it has developed.
Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, told Food Safety News that Lumora’s GMO-detection technology is an example of efforts to make gene detection easier and cheaper.
“The good news for us who are tracking food safety is that this technology will help quickly identify if food contains GMOs as well as track pathogens like Salmonella quickly,” he said. “This is one of many technologies scientists are working on.”
Hanson also said it would be good for farmers to have a cheap reliable way to test products for GMOs that they’re shipping out. And it would allow testing by more agents, which would provide statistically valid results showing that a crop is not a GMO product or that it’s GMO-free.
It will also be a tool food processors can use, said Hanson, although the “ideal technology” probably needs to be even simpler and cheaper than this new technology developed by Lumora.
“But if they get this right, it could be used by the big food processors,” he said.
Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute told Food Safety News that Lumora’s new test “would have great utility” if it’s reasonably priced and quick enough.”
“There are a lot of organic companies that want to ascertain whether or not any of their products have become contaminated by genetically modified organisms,” he said.
Organic manufacturers that do a fair amount of testing generally find very low incidental levels of contamination — less than 1 percent.
But that’s not always the case. “When we find higher levels of contamination, they directly point to gross mismanagement or fraud,” he said. “And we quite frankly would like to be able to have a cost-effective mechanism to hold people responsible.”
The need to do that came to the forefront when Cornucopia tested some foods marketed as “natural foods” and found high levels of GMO commodities — up to 100 percent — in them.
In a news release about these findings, Cornucopia’s research director Will Fantle said that as part of that testing, the institute bought a readily available box of Kashi’s Go Lean cereal from a Whole Foods store. It then sent a sample to an accredited national lab for testing and found that the soy in what was billed as a “natural cereal” was 100 percent GMO.
In its defense, Kashi, which is owned by the Kellogg Company, put out a video that said that any genetically engineered contamination in its food was from incidental sources rather than crops intentionally grown from GMO seed.
While acknowledging that over 80 percent of the soybeans grown in North America are GMO, the company explained that “practices in agricultural storage, handling and shipping have led to an environment where GMOs are not sufficiently controlled.”
But Kastel calls that “a smoke screen and a feeble attempt at damage control,” and points out that if a company wants to buy non-GMO crops, it can.
Kashi was not the only cereal put under Cornucopia’s microscope that failed to meet the test of being GMO-free. Some others were Barbara’s (Weetabix), Bare Naked and Peace.
Kastel told Food Safety News that when it published “Cereal Crimes,” it spent quite a bit of money on GMO testing.
“We had to pick and choose products because of the cost,” he said. “A more reasonably priced testing protocol would be highly advantageous for organic industry watchdogs like the Cornucopia Institute and high-integrity manufacturers.”
Biotech industry response Karen Batra, spokesperson for Biotechnology Industry Organization told Food Safety News that the organization has not yet taken a position on Lumora’s new technology.