How Loblaws lost 20 years of loyalty

I will no longer buy food from Loblaws. Until now, I have favoured it over other grocery chains because it is Canadian owned, and because it was one of the first to market green products.

But last month it asked suppliers to stop using labels identifying food as free of genetic modification.


For me, that one move was so fundamentally wrong, and so revealing of an anti-green philosophy, that it instantly wiped out 20 years of my loyalty.


Who the hell is Loblaws, anyway, to tell me I have no right to know what I’m eating?


And who the hell is Loblaws to assume that genetically modified food is safe to eat?


Coincidentally, the Loblaws request occurred at the same time as I received the summer issue of Alternatives Journal, published by the Faculty of Environmental Studies at Waterloo University. It contained an interview with Dr. Arpad Pusztai, conducted by Wayne Roberts, coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council.


Pusztai is the research scientist who was fired in 1998 by Scotland’s Rowett Research Institute after appearing on British television and saying that testing of genetically modified foods is inadequate, and that humans are unwittingly being used as guinea pigs.


With a $3.6 million grant from the Scottish government, he and his research team had been examining possible health and environmental hazards posed by genetically modified foods. They were also developing procedures for conducting risk assessments.


Following his television appearance, there was an immediate outcry from supporters of genetically modifying foods, and on the first day of the controversy, he was defended by the director of the institute. On the second day, however, he was suspended, slapped with a gag order, and subsequently forced to retire. Only later was it learned that the Rowett Institute was partly funded by Monsanto Inc., the U.S. farm and food giant.


In his Toronto interview, Pusztai said his research showed that the technology for genetic engineering of food is highly unreliable. It’s not just the gene being inserted that can cause difficulties. The bigger problem lies with the procedures for inserting it. And that’s because no one knows for sure where in the DNA chain of a food the new gene is going to land.


« It’s (like) a blind archer shooting at a target,’’ Pusztai said. « It may land in the middle of nowhere, it may land in the middle of a functioning gene, it may interrupt a particular gene’s functioning, it may interact with (what is called) junk DNA — what we don’t know, we call junk.’’


In addition to what Pusztai said, it’s well known that genes often control more than one characteristic. And a single characteristic may be controlled by several genes.


So it’s impossible to predict all the consequences of dropping a foreign gene blindly into a DNA chain, in a spot where you don’t know how it might affect the complex web of relationships among existing genes. It’s conceivable that some consequences might take years, even decades, to become detectable.


Already we know that sometimes genetic manipulation can produce a food that causes allergic or anaphylactic reactions. There’s even some suspicion that toxic characteristics can result.


In short, this is still an inexact science, and I, for one, simply refuse to eat genetically modified food. And, if it is not going to be banned until proven safe, then, at the very least, genetically modified foods should be labelled — and, as luck would have it, there’s an excellent private member’s bill requiring labelling, that’s already before the House of Commons. It was introduced by Charles Caccia and received first reading last February. Caccia is the Liberal member for Davenport and chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. The bill should be passed.


In the meantime, I can only hope that executives at Loblaws realize that food stores depend on the trust of their customers. As of now, Loblaws has lost mine.

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