GMO Risks and How to Avoid Them

By Rani Bhattacharyya Community Economics Extension Educator , University of Minnesota Extension- Center for Community Vitality | August 26, 2012

With genetically modified foods entering consumer markets again this summer, the hospitality and food service industries need to decide how much liability they are willing accept concerning the risks that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) pose to the public. To explore this issue, this article is divided into three sections: 1) what GMOs are and how they are regulated, 2) a listing of health risks that GMOs pose to your guests, and 3) strategies that hotels can use to avoid liability for these risks.

Definitions and Regulation

Silence concerning GMOs in the US is due, in part to a failure of federal regulators to establish a definition for GMOs that aligns with those used by the rest of the world. According to the USDA, FDA and EPA a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) refers to organisms that have been altered by traditional breeding techniques or by molecular Genetic Engineering Methods (GEM). The EU and other countries however use the term GMO to refer specifically to products created from molecular genetic engineering (or bioengineering) methods developed since the 1970s. In this article, will use the international concept of GMOs. Anger over GMOs has also arisen since there is very little if any independent scientific information concerning the long-term effects on both humans and the environment resulting from production and consumption of newly engineered products. In the absence of providing farmers, biotech companies and the public a common language with which to develop a regulatory framework to “protect and promote our health”, the FDA and other agencies are essentially refusing the American public the right to know what they are eating.

For a GMO crop to enter into production and the US marketplace, each of these agencies does have procedures for evaluating the risks posed by each product. In practice however, many of the trial GMO studies required by the USDA have failed to “contain” modified genetic material within trial plots, resulting in contamination of adjacent fields owned by farmers not participating in the studies. The farmers, in turn, are then being sued by biotech firms for infringing on intellectual property rights of the firms. The EPA also now lists proprietary GMO corn, cotton and potato varieties as (toxins) since they now contain chemicals used as herbicides and insecticides.

The FDA encourages voluntary consultations with companies developing GMOs, but law does not require formal product reports before they are cleared for industrial applications or sale.

Within this patchwork, three phases of genetic engineering have already been initiated since the 1990s. The first phase included crops now on the market and focused on increasing crop resistance to insecticides, herbicides and fungal/viral infections. The second phase is focused on ramping up plant resistance to extreme temperature and soil conditions and improving nutrient content. The third phase is working to develop crops that contain pharmaceutical additives like hormones and vaccines. While these scientific efforts have the potential to alleviate many of the worlds health issues and food shortages, the proprietary nature of the research and patenting being done by biotech companies leads many to believe their true aim is to monopolize both the world’s agricultural resources and food supply.

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Social Media: Engagement is Key

There are currently 2.3 billion active users of social media networks and savvy hotel operators have incorporated social media into their marketing mix. There are a few Goliath channels on which one must have a presence (Facebook & Twitter) but there are also several newer upstart channels (Instagram, Snapchat &WeChat, for example) that merit consideration. With its 1.86 billion users, Facebook is a dominant platform where operators can drive brand awareness, facilitate bookings, offer incentives and collect sought-after reviews. Twitter's 284 million users generate 500 million tweets per day, and operators can use its platform for lead generation, building loyalty, and guest interaction. Instagram was originally a small photo-sharing site but it has blown up into a massive photo and video channel. The site can be used to post photos of the hotel property, as well as creating Instagram Stories - personal videos that disappear from the channel after 24 hours. In this regard, Instagram and Snapchat are now in direct competition. WeChat is a Chinese company whose aim is to be the App for Everything - instant messaging, social media, shopping and payment services - all in a single platform. In addition to these channels, blogging continues to be a popular method to establish leadership, enhance reputations, and engage with customers in a direct and personal way. The key to effective use of all social media is to find out where your customers are and then, to the fullest extent possible, engage with them on a personal level. This engagement is what creates a personal connection and sustains brand loyalty. The February Hotel Business Review will explore these issues and examine how some hotels are successfully integrating social media into their operations.