WASHINGTON (AP) — Genetically modified foods have been around for years, but most Americans have no idea if they are eating them.
The Food and Drug Administration says they don't need to be labeled, so the state of Vermont has moved forward on its own. On Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation making his state the first to require labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
What about the rest of the country? And does labeling matter?
There's a lot of confusion about genetically modified foods and their safety.
Some people feel very strongly about GMOs. Opponents, who at times have protested in the streets, say consumers have the right to know whether their food contains GMOs. The Vermont law is their first major victory.
The food industry and companies that genetically engineer seeds have pushed back against the labeling laws, saying GMOs are safe and labels would be misleading.
"It's really polarizing," says New York University's Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies. "There's no middle ground."
A look at the debate and some of the facts about genetically modified foods:
WHAT THEY ARE
GMOs are not really a "thing," Nestle says, and that's hard for the average consumer to grasp. You can't touch or feel a GMO.
Genetically modified foods are plants or animals that have had genes copied from other plants or animals inserted into their DNA. It's not a new idea — humans have been tinkering with genes for centuries through selective breeding. Think dogs bred to be more docile pets, cattle bred to be beefier or tomatoes bred to be sweeter. Turkeys were bred to have bigger breasts — better for Thanksgiving dinner.
What's different about genetically modified or engineered foods is that the manipulation is done in a lab. Engineers don't need to wait for nature to produce a desired gene; they speed up the process by transferring a gene from one plant or animal to another.
What are the desired traits? Most of the nation's corn and soybeans are genetically engineered to resist pests and herbicides. A papaya in Hawaii is modified to resist a virus. The FDA is considering an application from a Massachusetts company to approve a genetically engineered salmon that would grow faster than traditional salmon.
IN YOUR GROCERY CART
Most of the genetically modified corn and soybeans are used in cattle feed, or are made into ingredients like corn oil, corn starch, high fructose corn syrup or soybean oil.
Even in some of those products, the manufacturing process itself may eventually remove some of the modified genes.
A few fruits and vegetables are engineered — the Hawaiian papaya and some squash and zucchini, for example. Only a small amount of sweet corn, the corn we eat, is genetically modified.
But there's no genetically modified meat or fish, like the fast-growing salmon, currently in the market for human consumption; the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any.
The vast majority of scientific research has found genetically engineered foods to be generally safe.
An Italian scientist's review of 10 years of research, published in 2013, concluded that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected "any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops."
One French research team raised safety questions, but their much-criticized 2012 study linking genetically modified corn to rat tumors was retracted in 2013 by the scientific publisher, who cited weak evidence supporting the conclusions.
Even the food police say they are safe: The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a well-known critic of food companies and artificial and unhealthy ingredients in foods, has not opposed genetically modified foods, on the basis that there's no evidence they are harmful.
Though what we are eating now appears safe, the main concerns for the future would be new genetically engineered foods — from the United States or abroad — that somehow become allergenic or toxic through the engineering process. The FDA says the foods they have evaluated to this point have not been any more likely to cause an allergic or toxic reaction than foods from traditionally bred plants.