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So Häagen-Dazs ‘says no to synbio’?

29-Aug-2014
Last updated on 05-Sep-2014 at 07:28 GMT - By Elaine Watson+
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When it comes to reporting the position of some of the world’s biggest food companies on genetically engineered foods, Friends of the Earth, it seems, has been engaging in some pretty creative PR ‘engineering’ of its own.

Now asking a company a question, getting the answer and using this as the hook for a press release that supports your 'narrative' is standard practice in PR, but FOE's creative interpretation of some pretty innocuous company statements in order to keep the momentum going in its anti-GMO campaign takes this to a whole new level.

Not content to quote the scores of companies that actually are, very publicly, opposed to genetically engineered foods, FOE is now on a mission to persuade us that even companies that are not opposed, or have not expressed a view, are in fact changing their minds (they just don't know it yet).

McDonald's, Gerber say no to GMO apple?

Its creative approach first came to our attention just before Christmas, in the form of a press release entitled McDonald's, Gerber say no to GMO apple, which reported that the two food giants had spurned genetically engineered ‘non-browning’ Arctic apples and was hailed as “further proof that the market is rejecting GMOs”.

A brief glance at the letters from Nestlé and McDonald’s which prompted this widely shared piece of ‘news’ however, suggested FOE’s interpretation of the companies' statements was at best, rather cheeky.

While it had no plans to use Arctic apples in Gerber fruit purees (said Nestlé in response to a direct question from FOE), ingredients from GM crops were used in several Gerber products, and Nestlé was not, in fact, opposed to GM crops, which it noted had been determined by the FDA to be “safe and nutritionally equivalent to traditional crops”.   

McDonald’s, meanwhile, made no reference to the merits or otherwise of GM crops (ingredients from which are used in many of its products), and simply stated (in response to the FOE question) that it had no “current plans” to buy said apples - which were not in any case available for purchase.

Now there could be a multitude of reasons why Arctic apples won’t appear in Gerber purees or McDonald’s fruit pies any time soon, but to seize upon these letters as “further proof” of anything other than the fact that these firms might just be content with their existing apple suppliers for the time being seems like a bit of a stretch.

‘Häagen-Dazs says no to synbio’

A press release issued by Friends of the Earth this week is an even more impressive example of its creative approach, meanwhile.

Once again, it started with a letter. FOE had asked Häagen-Dazs if it planned to use vanillin produced via a fermentation process* from a baker's yeast developed by Evolva and IFF - which is due to hit the market shortly as a better-tasting and more sustainable alternative to synthetic vanillin products made from petrochemicals or chemically treated paper pulp.

No, responded Häagen-Dazs in a one sentence statement, we’ve got no plans to use said ingredient.

Seizing upon this fact (which was not accompanied by any comment on the merits or otherwise of synthetic biology), FOE immediately issued a press release - Häagen-Dazs says no to synbio’ - which praised the brand for “listening to the growing number of consumers who don’t want synbio vanilla and other extreme GMOs in their foods”.

What it omitted to mention is that Häagen-Dazs doesn’t actually use vanillin in its vanilla ice cream - it uses Madagascan natural vanilla extract, which by definition must come from vanilla beans - so its promise not to use ‘synbio’ vanillin, is, well, kind of moot.

But that doesn’t make for quite such an appealing headline...

*The baker's yeast in question is cultured in fermentation tanks using non-GM sugars as feedstock to produce vanillin and other vanilla flavor components, says Evolva, which expects its vanillin products to compete with synthetic vanillin, which is currently used in the overwhelming majority of vanilla-flavored products because vanilla from seed pods of vanilla orchids is scarce and expensive.
The yeast itself has been 'genetically engineered' in that a handful of plant genes have been added to the 5,000+ already in its genome, but it is used as a processing aid, and is not present in the final product, says Evolva.
"The tweaked yeast is a processing aid that is removed like other processing aids [and as such the vanillin it produces would not be subject to GMO labeling]. We’re adding just a few plant genes to the 5,000+ that comprise the baker’s yeast genome. These extra plant genes are real, not 'fake', not created from a '3D printer'.
So what is the regulatory status of Evolva's vanillin, and is it 'natural'?
Says Evolva: "For most markets, our vanillin can be labeled as a natural flavor as part of a flavoring solution. If it is sold as an ingredient, it can be labeled as natural vanillin in most major markets where this ingredient is approved and labeled in consumer products, depending on how it is used; it is approved on all major flavor listings, including FEMA, CODEX, IOFI, JECFA, EU Union List, etc. as a legally approved flavoring substance."

Related topics: The GM debate, Food labeling and marketing, GMO Labeling, Regulation, R&D, Manufacturers, Views, Flavors and colors