Labs and labels
Chef Paul Fehribach can recall the kitchen clamor when Flavr Savr first hit the market in the mid-1990s. The much-talked-about tomato, the first genetically modified (GM) fruit or vegetable the federal government licensed for commercial sale and human consumption, had chefs like him asking — and fielding — lots of questions. Working at the Laughing Planet Café in Bloomington, Ind., Fehribach learned the ruby red tomatoes had been engineered to grow tougher, thicker skins that would slow the ripening process, preserve shelf life and prevent rotting along the supply chain. They were, as the popular narrative often goes, the future of food.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined the GM tomatoes were “as safe as tomatoes bred by conventional means” and therefore did not necessitate specific GM labeling, high production costs and handling issues ultimately proved crippling for Calgene. The California-based company’s revolutionary product was never widely available and was totally off the market by 1997, less than three years after its introduction. (Multinational agriculture-biotechnology firm Monsanto acquired Calgene that year to capitalize on its oilseed and cotton undertakings.)
Though the tomato proved to be a lemon, GM foods now proliferate. Corn, soybeans and canola are the most predominant GM crops available today: In 2013, 93 percent of U.S. soybeans, in production acreage, are genetically engineered to be herbicide-tolerant, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). An increasing amount of soy protein is being fed to farmed fish commonly available to U.S. consumers, such as tilapia, catfish and salmon. Should those fish be labeled as GM? How far should labeling requirements go?
Fehribach is hearing those and other questions about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the food supply once again. Big Jones in Chicago, is “very nearly GMO-free,” says the co-owner and executive chef of the restaurant that specializes in “Southern heirloom cooking.” For now, seafood isn’t a problem in that regard; Big Jones menus Lake Pontchartrain blue crab, Louisiana crawfish and sustainable staples like Laughing Bird shrimp from Costa Rica (which is both farmed and wild), sourced via CleanFish. It’s challenging, and often more expensive, to procure products that meet what’s become a demanding criterion, he adds. He just doesn’t seem to care much about that.