Is Baby Formula Safe?

The non-government organization Center for Food Safety had three store-bought baby formulas tested for evidence of DNA from a GMO crop. The company used to conduct the test detected DNA from genetically engineered soy in some infant formula. Should parents be worried? We reached out to Dr. Kevin Folta from the University of Florida and Dr. Martina Newell-McGloughlin from the University of California-Davis to sort through what this finding means for parents.

According to the analysis, DNA from genetically engineered soy designed to withstand herbicide treatment, was found in some brands of infant formula. What can you tell us about their findings? What are the dangers of consuming these products?

Dr. Folta: “The online report that is circulating claims evidence of soy genetically engineered to “tolerate high doses of chemical pesticides” was found in some infant formulas, making it sound like there was a pesticide detected in baby formula. There was not. Their test detected DNA from a gene that allows the soybean plant to grow in the presence of an herbicide called glyphosate or another called glufosinate. There was no evidence of any applied chemical – they confirmed that the formula was made from a soy plant with herbicide-tolerant genes.

It is important to note that what they call a “pesticide” is actually an herbicide with the same toxicity of table salt, and about one pound is used per acre. That’s a sprinkling per square meter, applied long before soybeans are even present on the plant. There is almost no chance it can end up in a product like infant formula, and even if it did, it has minimal toxicity to mammals.”

Dr. Newell-McGoughlin: “At the outset, it is important to remember that, when growing crops, it is necessary to control weeds. There are several mechanical and chemical methods that can be used to do this. Having crops that are tolerant to herbicides (HT) increases pest management options and can reduce the number and strength of applications. HT crops can also lead to more flexible herbicide treatment regime and can replace herbicides that have a less favorable environmental profile that persist in the soil and may leach into groundwater. Whiile for the most part, residues are measured for directly-consumed foods, such as fruits and vegetables, glyphosate analysis for soybeans has been conducted and all glyphosate residues were found to be well below the tolerances set by the EPA. In addition, since the principal soybean component that is present in baby formula is isolated soy protein, this is a highly processed commodity that involves high level cleaning and precipitation of the protein. Such processes will virtually remove all exogenous materials and result in negligible levels remaining.”

 Should parents be worried about feeding this infant formula to their children?

Dr. Folta: “No. If anything, I think the detection of glyphosate-resistant crops should make parents feel better about the products. Glyphosate replaced other herbicides because of its safety, and again, glyphosate is used in miniscule levels, before plants flower, and was not detected in the tests.”

Dr. Newell-McGloughlin: “No. All baby food must meet the highest standards possible and suggesting the use of ingredients from GE sources in any way affects the quality of infant formula is both untrue and misleading. In fact, quite the opposite is the case, since GE crops are more thoroughly tested than any in the history of food and agricultural research. The consensus of scientific evidence and opinion is that GE foods present no new or unusual dangers to human health. For example, the World Health Organization has stated that, “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

An estimated 2 trillion meals containing genetically modified ingredients have been eaten around the world over the last 16 years without a single substantiated case of ill health. Repeated studies sponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have reached the same conclusions. Between 700 and 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies have concluded that crops produced using modern biotechnology techniques are safe. A recent study from the UC Davis that examined data sets representing over 100 billion animals following the introduction of GE crops did not reveal any problems in livestock health and productivity. Even from the GM-averse European Union, an EU Commission summary report in 2011 covering 25 years of research involving 130 research projects and 500 research groups concluded that, “There is no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” Their report further concluded that there is no evidence that genetically modified foods have any harmful long-term effect over multiple generations. A declaration supporting this position was signed by over 3,500 scientists including 25 Nobel Laureates.”

Does this finding justify the need for labeling of all foods/products that contain genetically modified ingredients?

Dr. Newell-McGloughlin: “As noted, the overwhelming majority of scientists, medical experts, the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have all concluded that genetically engineered food products are safe and that requiring special labels for them is unnecessary and could be misleading to consumers. In fact, the American Medical Association has gone so far as to state: “There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.” The FDA already requires that all foods be labeled with relevant health, nutrition, safety and ingredient-related information. Labeling should be focused on the product that is to be consumed, not the process by which it was made, otherwise you would need to include all of the myriad methods that are used to modify traits in our food crops. Labels should enable consumers to make informed decisions, but many would see a GMO label as a warning that there was something to be concerned about since one process is being singled out from all of the numerous processes that we use.

So what about the question of choice? This will be choice at a prohibitive cost for many since ingredients will require segregation and identity preservation back to the source. The need for such segregation of products every step of the way will mean higher costs across the supply, which inevitably will be passed on to consumers. It is estimated that will cost about $400 per family per year. This amounts to a tax on those who have no interest in paying extra for labels that have no health value and often these are the very individuals who can least afford it.”

The image “angled” by nerissa’s ring is licensed under CC BY 2.0.