Genetically modified food products are foods that are produced from organisms whose DNA has been changed; they have been genetically modified. Thus, the organisms are referred to as genetically-modified organisms or “GMOs.” These organisms are both plant and animal, although the use of GMO technology has mostly focused on so-called cash crops, which are crops in high demand by farmers such as soybeans, corn, cotton and canola, which is processed for use as fertilizer, cooking oil, and biodiesel fuel.
The GMOs used the most are genetically designed to tolerate herbicides, which are chemicals used to control the growth of weeds in crop fields. The use of herbicides results in weeds gaining resistance to them, so the herbicides gradually become less effective. Development of genetically modified crops that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate has led to the widespread use of glyphosate to control weeds.
For this reason, many species of weeds have developed resistance to the herbicide through the process of natural selection. This raises another issue of concern with respect to crops derived from GMOs, i.e. the effect they have on the natural environment in which they are raised.
Organisms can be genetically modified because of the introduction of several new biotechnological techniques and advancements developed in recent decades. Current laws on GMOs and genetically-modified food products are not clear on the subject of whether their producers need to disclose to consumers that a food product has been raised with genetic modification.
Many people are concerned about the safety and health effects of GMO-based food products. Some consumers fear that foods grown from GMOs pose dangers to their health and may have a negative influence on such health issues as food allergies, mutated DNA, exposure to radiation, toxicity, and others. Many people are concerned about the effect of GMOs on the environment.
Examples of GMO Technologies and Techniques
Creating genetically modified food products can involve a wide range of bio-tech methods and techniques.
First, it is a multi-step process. The first step is to locate a gene in another organism that could be useful if added to a different organism. Technology available today allows one gene to be taken from a cell. Or, it can even be artificially synthesized, and then combined with other genetic elements.
Then the genetic elements are inserted into the target organism’s genome. DNA is generally inserted into animal cells using microinjection, where it can be injected directly into the cell nucleus, As only a single cell is transformed with genetic material, the organism must then be regenerated from that single cell. When this process is complete, testing is done to confirm that an organism contains the new gene.
Traditionally new genetic material was inserted randomly into the targeted, host genome. However new techniques allow gene targeting. This technology creates breaks and insertion can be targeted to exact locations.
Other examples of GMO techniques include:
- Cloning of plants or animals;
- Various fertilization or fermentation techniques;
- Application of plant culturing methods;
- Use of plant enzymes;
- Combining different breeds or organisms to create hybrid food products.
Some techniques are less “intrusive” to the plant or animal than other techniques. However, clearly these processes are highly technical and are best understood by experts in the field of genetics. Because some of these techniques and their products have not been analyzed over a long period of time, they can often be subject to questioning by health officials and consumers.
Can I File a Claim Involving a Genetically Modified Food Product?
Laws and case histories regarding GMOs are still new and somewhat limited. However, a person might have a claim against an agricultural processor if they have been injured by a GMO food product in a manner that involves:
- Negligence on the part of the processor;
- Violations of health and safety codes;
- Warning label defects;
- Disregard for public safety;
- False advertising.
The success of such a claim would require evidence proving that a person has been injured by a product. Furthermore, the injured person would have to prove that a characteristic of the product related to genetic modification of it was the cause of their injury. To date, no case has been reported in which a person alleging injury caused by the genetic modification of a food item has been successful in collecting damages.
It is the consensus among scientists that GMO-produced foods do not present any greater risk to human health than other, conventional food products.
On the other hand, farmers have met with some success in suing the producers of GMO-produced seeds for crop production. For example, a group of farmers in the mid-western region of the U.S. sued several seed companies, claiming that they sold them corn seed before the corn produced had been approved for export to China, which was their largest customer. The case was reportedly settled for $1.5 billion.
In other cases, farmers have not been successful. A common concern has been the possible genetic contamination of non-GMO crop plants by GMO crops. A group of farmers of organic alfalfa sued a GMO-seed producer, asking the court to stop planting of the GMO-alfalfa seed on crop land near their own on the grounds that the GMO alfalfa might contaminate their organic alfalfa and prevent them from marketing their product as “organic.” The farmers were unsuccessful in that case, but courts have recognized that cross-contamination of non-GMO crops by GMO-crops is a real possibility.
The issue has not been conclusively settled by the courts, and remains an open issue for farmers.
Over a decade ago, a non-profit claimed that the federal government should require labeling of GMO food products and that these products should be subject to the same testing as food additives. The non-profit claimed that the food products potentially present unidentified health risks. The federal court in which the lawsuit was filed rejected all of the claims and held that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had properly determined that GMO food products are generally recognized as safe.
There is no governmental agency that certifies the labeling of foods as “non-GMO” or “GMO free,” However, a complete list of products with a genetically modified version is available at https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/be/bioengineered-foods-list.
The labeling of a food product as “bioengineered” is a new label that will be mandatory as of January 1, 2022 per the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The “bioengineered” label must appear on all food products that are genetically modified. However, in highly refined products, such as corn syrup or soybean oil, genetic differences between the traditional product and the ones containing a GMO element are undetectable, so they will not need the label.
In addition, products made from animals that received bioengineered feed will not be labeled. The USDA has created a label for this purpose, but regulations allow manufacturers to also use a QR code, electronic disclosure, provide a number for a text message, or use the words “bioengineered food” or “contains bioengineered food ingredients.”
Certain well-known companies have produced GMO seeds for crop production with the goal of making the products resistant to herbicides, pesticides or insecticides that are used on the crops by farmers to enhance production. The herbicides or pesticides may have been the subject of litigation brought by the farmers or others who have used them in non-agricultural settings. In some cases, the lawsuits have been successful, e.g. lawsuits against the Monsanto company involving its herbicide, “Roundup.”
Do I Need a Lawyer?
Food products derived from GMOs or containing ingredients from GMOs have not been shown to present risks to the health of people who consume them. If you believe that you have been injured by such a food product and some characteristic of it that is directly related to genetic modification, then you should most definitely consult with an experienced defective products attorney.
The attorney can assist with researching the issue and determining whether a direct relationship between the genetic modification of the food and your injury can be established by available evidence. In addition, your attorney can provide you with legal advice and guidance and can help guide you towards the appropriate legal remedy. If you need more information on food product laws, your lawyer can conduct the legal research you need to keep you up to date on this developing area of the law.