Believing that genetically engineered foods are untested for health effects on humans, the Ashland Food Co-op has launched a program to get all such products off its shelves this year — and other area markets, including Shop N Kart and Food For Less, say they are steadily increasing offerings of GMO-free food.

Believing that genetically engineered foods are untested for health effects on humans, the Ashland Food Co-op has launched a program to get all such products off its shelves this year — and other area markets, including Shop N Kart and Food For Less, say they are steadily increasing offerings of GMO-free food.

Most genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are found in corn, soy, canola, cottonseed products and Hawaiian papaya, which means they're in a huge array of foods — estimates range up to 70 percent in processed food — says Co-op Outreach and Owner Services Manager Annie Hoy, who teaches classes on non-GMO shopping.

"They're made in a lab in ways that nature doesn't operate. It's an imprecise science. It may look, act and taste like corn, but it isn't corn," says Hoy, noting that science recognizes no species barriers, and will combine genes from fish and strawberries in order to extract a trait, such as long shelf life, color or ability to resist pesticides.

What most aggravates shoppers, she says, is that GMO foods are not required to be labeled as such, so it's difficult to screen them out of your diet.

"I try to avoid GMO and I would feel a lot more secure if it were better labeled," says Kelly Cruser of Ashland, who is educated as a zoologist and has worked as an orthodontist. "It's in two-thirds of everything in grocery stores now and there are many important likely health consequences and very few studies to verify GMOs are safe."

The ability to fine tune her shopping skills required study — and Cruser has learned which corn and tomatoes have been genetically modified. She buys blue corn chips (only yellow corn has undergone GMO) and Roma tomatoes, which are not among the engineered species.

On a walking tour of the Ashland Food Co-op, Hoy points out that, while GMO foods evade labeling, foods labeled non-GMO, such as milk from Umpqua Dairy in Roseburg, are required to carry a disclaimer saying the FDA has determined that "no test can distinguish" between the milk of treated and untreated cows.

Many popular ice creams and yogurts, long considered healthful, will not make the cut at the co-op, because they don't meet the standard of being free from bovine growth hormone, which is genetically engineered, says Rainbo O'Connor, chairwoman of the store's Product Safety Committee.

O'Connor had her management team read "Seeds of Deception; Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating," by Jeffery M. Smith — and recently pulled all canola oil out of the store's deli and substituted organic olive, grape seed and sunflower oil.

Because crops aren't grown in plastic bubbles, but get their pollen blown around by the wind, "it's getting increasingly hard to say something has no GMOs, but a good yardstick is "shop organic," she says, adding that anything that is certified organic, by definition, means it's GMO-free.

Terry Johnson, manager of Food For Less organic food department, Medford, says she's increasing her line of organic and non-GMO foods.

"I wish they'd make them label the GMO," she says.

Johnson says she doesn't like hearing that tomato and salmon-scale genes have been crossed to express stronger tomato skins.

Ashland Shop N Kart manager Eric Chaddock says his "very vocal and informed customers," more and more are demanding organic and non-GMO foods and "just because the FDA says something is safe doesn't mean it's safe."

Leading the charge against genetically modified food is Physicians for Social Responsibility, whose spokesman in Portland, Rick North, says, "GMOs have not been demonstrated safe for human health and the environment "¦ the more people know about genetically engineered food, the more they don't want them — and they vote with their dollars."

State-by-state laws requiring labeling of GMO foods is unlikely to work, so PSR and other groups are focusing on a federal labeling law, says North. A state ballot measure requiring GMO labeling was defeated in 2002.

"It was a popular idea until Monsanto, which makes most of the genetically engineered foods, poured millions of dollars into Oregon to defeat it," North says.

While proven impacts of GMO food remain a question mark, Hoy remains unequivocal in her opposition, saying, "Nothing that's been genetically manipulated has been shown to be good for the consumer, more nutritious or easier to digest. They're not doing it in the interest of the consumer."

"There's no way to recall this genetic material," says Hoy, who worries about the persistence of GMOs in the environment. "I probably have it in me. How does it make me feel? Not very happy. It's getting harder and harder to eat food without more and more worry."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.