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Americans Eat Their Weight in Genetically Engineered Food

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For Immediate Release: 
Monday, October 15, 2012

New analysis underscores need for long-term health studies, labeling

Oakland, Calif. - Americans are eating their weight and more in genetically engineered food every year, a new Environmental Working Group analysis of recent government data shows.

EWG calculates that people eat an average of 193 pounds of genetically engineered food over a 12-month period. That’s more than the typical U.S. adult weight of 179 pounds.

EWG’s is the first estimate of dietary intake of genetically engineered ingredients in the American population.

"What's shocking is that Americans are eating so much genetically engineered food, yet there have been zero long-term studies done by the federal government or industry to determine if its consumption could pose a risk health," said Renee Sharp, lead author of the report and the director of EWG’s California office. "If you were planning on eating your body weight of anything in a year or feeding that much food to your family, wouldn’t you first want to know if long-term government studies and monitoring have shown it is safe?"

EWG is a strong supporter of Proposition 37, a California ballot initiative, which would require food manufacturers to label genetically engineered foods.

“We Californians have the chance to stand up for the rest of the country and against multinational chemical companies by voting for more information rather than less when it comes to the food we buy and feed to our families,” said EWG president Ken Cook, a California resident. “Voting ‘Yes’ on Prop 37 isn’t a vote for a politician or political party, but for out right to know what’s in our food—a right consumers have in over 50 countries around the world, including China and India.”

To calculate how much genetically engineered food people eat each year, EWG researchers started with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2011 data on per capita consumption of four foods commonly derived from genetically engineered crops: sugar, corn-based sweeteners, salad oil and “corn products.”

We compared those consumption figures with the latest USDA data showing that 95 percent of the sugar beets, 93 percent of the soybeans and 88 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. We also applied federal data showing that 79 percent of the salad oil consumed in the U.S. is soybean oil, and 55 percent of the sugar comes from sugar beets.

From these figures, we calculated that the average American annually consumes genetically engineered foods in these quantities: 68 pounds of beet sugar, 58 pounds of corn syrup, 38 pounds of soybean oil and 29 pounds of corn-based products, for a total of 193 pounds.

Under current law, those who hold patents on genetically engineered foods get to decide in most cases what testing can – and cannot – be conducted, making it practically impossible for independent scientists to do research on the safety of genetically engineered foods. EWG’s analysis cites several peer-reviewed studies that have linked GE foods to allergies and other health problems.

The evidence of environmental harm of GE crops and associated pesticides is compelling. The planting of GE crops has increased overall pesticide use by more than 300 million pounds and has led to the proliferation of pesticide-resistant superweeds and superbugs.

EWG's analysis is likely an underestimate, since it does not account for all of the GE foods that Americans currently eat. Other foods that commonly come in GE versions – but are not included in the calculation – include canola oil, cottonseed oil, papaya, yellow squash and soy products other than soybean oil. EWG also excluded genetically engineered animal feed that people may consume indirectly by eating meat raised on GE crops.

As more genetically engineered crops are approved and grown commercially, the average amount consumed would be expected to spike far above 193 pounds a year, according to the analysis. EWG researchers found some people are likely already eating more than their share of genetically engineered food. Hispanic Americans, for example, who typically eat between 2 to 3 times more corn flour than people of other ethnicities, would be expected to get an extra dose of genetically engineered food in their diet. Similarly, data show that children eat more corn flour and sweeteners per pound of body weight than adults.

The analysis underscores the need to conduct long-term health studies and to label food that contains genetically engineered ingredients so consumers can decide for themselves if it is what they want for themselves and their families. Fifty nations including China have passed laws similar that contemplated by Proposition 37. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans, including Californians, want to know if their food has been genetically engineered.

Right now, the only way consumers can avoid genetically engineered ingredients is by eating organic alternatives, which are not always accessible or affordable.