Viewpoint: OMG! GMO! Killer ice cream? Here’s the latest in anti-biotechnology hysteria

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Credit: Urgent Company
Credit: Urgent Company
If you’re worried about never-ending wars, crippling national debt, poverty, disease, social unrest, or even really bad stomach aches, the anti-GMO movement is here to tell you about another troubling threat: ice cream made in the laboratory. Never content to leave God’s creation alone, those pesky scientists are now synthetically producing dairy proteins used to make delicious, frozen treats.

“A genetically engineered ice cream has been rushed to market with consumer messaging that obscures the fact that the ice cream is GMO, according to a prominent public health attorney,” the Organic and Non-GMO Report warned in July. Pray tell, why is this a crisis?

“As a food lawyer, seeing mislabeled products sends shivers down my spine,” Michele Simon, “public health attorney” and former executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, warned. “This is not your run of the mill deceptive labeling. People’s lives are potentially at risk with the wrong labeling on products containing such a common allergen as dairy protein.”

Allow me to still Simon’s trembling hands. There is nothing misleading about how this new ice cream is labeled, nor is there any reason to fear for anyone’s life should they eat it.

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Pop quiz

What’s the difference between a dairy protein found in cow’s milk and the same protein produced via genetically engineered microbes? Absolutely nothing. A protein is a protein as long as it’s a protein. I’m no Josh Bloom, but even I know that much chemistry. For literally decades, scientists have isolated the DNA that encodes certain proteins to mass-produce them for use in foods and medicines. Insulin, vaccines, and even cheese are all typical examples. We can now add Impossible Burgers and ice cream to the list. Harvard University biologist Jeff Bessen explained the process this way:

Many vaccines and top-grossing pharmaceuticals contain proteins as the main ingredient. Proteins are too costly and delicate to manufacture from scratch. But living cells must make proteins to survive, and they can be coaxed to produce medical proteins in bulk, requiring little more than the DNA instructions and sugary broth as fuel. Since these genetic blueprints must be inserted into the cells, many vaccines and drugs are technically the product of GMOs

Brave Robot, one of the companies making animal-free ice cream, helpfully summarized the process on its website:

Brave Robot does not contain GMOs. The Perfect Day non-animal whey protein we use to make our ice cream comes from microflora, which produce different kinds of protein naturally. The microflora are given the genetic instructions for creating whey protein and go through a fermentation process along with some plant sugars (just like brewing beer!).

Lives are on the line?

Alright, so this isn’t new technology, strictly speaking, but what about the deceptive labeling allegation? Companies advancing this fermentation technology do indeed call their products “animal free.” And this is troubling, Simon claimed, because it “could be wrongly interpreted as meaning ‘vegan’ when the product contains a dairy protein.”

Related article:  Viewpoint: 'Big Ag' owns scientists who endorse safety of GMOs? Busting the anti-biotech movement's favorite myth

This is a lie, plain and simple. Federal law mandates that food manufacturers disclose the ingredients in their products, including “major food allergens.” According to the FDA,

a “major food allergen” is an ingredient that is one of the following eight foods or food groups or an ingredient that contains protein derived from one of them: a. milk b. egg c. fish d. Crustacean shellfish e. tree nuts f. wheat g. peanuts h. soybeans [my emphasis].

Additionally, foods that “may contain” allergens are usually labeled because companies try to avoid harming their customers. This labeling is technically voluntary; it would be dishonest to require a warning on a product that does not pose the associated risk. Still, these startups are happily disclosing the potential risk to their prospective customers. “We encourage ice cream eaters who have a milk protein allergy to use the same precautions with Brave Robot that they would take with dairy,” the company wrote in its FAQ.

Simon’s condescending assumption that consumers with allergies are too dim to check a label or avoid potentially dangerous foods is equally ridiculous. This is doubly so because the Non-GMO Project label doesn’t guarantee that a product is actually free of “GMOs.” [1]

In any case, the point of calling a product “animal free” is to attract vegan customers, many of whom avoid dairy products because of ethical considerations. So long as that message is clear, there is no attempt to hide the presence of dairy in the product. As Brave Robot also noted in its FAQ:

Animal-free dairy is made without animal inputs. The non-animal whey protein is identical to what’s in cow’s milk, but made without using a single animal in the process. Animal-free dairy is vegan (as are all the other ingredients we use in our products!).

Bottom line

The non-GMO industrial complex is built on a marketing mythology that excludes biotechnology. Because these companies can’t produce so many of the useful products made possible by genetic engineering, they have to demonize them.

Simon and others like her aren’t worried that these foods have been “rushed” to market, nor do they lose sleep about misleading labels, given their willingness to promote other deceptive labeling practices. They’re affiliated with an industry trying to maintain its ill-gotten market share. The only way to do that is to fabricate health scares.

Notes:

[1] This is a dubious standard anyway. All sorts of laboratory tricks have been used over the years to produce “non-GMO” products.

Cameron J. English is the director of bio-sciences at the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

A version of this article was originally posted at the American Council on Science and Health and has been reposted here with permission. The ACSH can be found on Twitter @ACSHorg
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