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Promotion of GMO-Derived Impossible Burger at World’s Largest Natural Food Trade Show Denounced as Deceptive

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Promotion of GMO-Derived Impossible Burger at World’s Largest Natural Food Trade Show Denounced as Deceptive
Impossible Foods' representatives serve up GMO Impossible Burger patties at Natural Products Expo West in March. Ken Roseboro

Natural food industry representatives and consumer advocates denounced Impossible Foods, maker of the GMO-derived Impossible Burger, for promoting their product at Natural Products Expo West, saying they were engaging in deceptive marketing.


Impossible Foods served patties of their burger to attendees at the world's largest natural food trade show — but there was no mention that the product was genetically engineered at the company's exhibit booth or in their marketing literature.

"We're disappointed that the company is using a 'natural products' show to promote its certainly not-natural product," said Frank Lampe, vice president of communications and industry relations, for the United Natural Products Alliance. "The halo effect of being perceived as natural by its presence at the show does not serve the natural products industry or its consumers and is a disingenuous move by Impossible Foods."

"Hosting the Impossible Burger at Natural Products Expo West raises questions of deceptive marketing. Consumers believe 'natural' means that no artificial ingredients or genetically engineered ingredients were used," said Dana Pearls, senior food and technology policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Jim Thomas, co-executive director of ETC Group, which tracks new genetic engineering technologies, said Impossible Foods exhibiting at Natural Products Expo West was "like inviting in an arms manufacturer to exhibit at a peace convention."

"What were the organizers of the world's leading natural and organic show thinking when they invited in such a controversial GMO company to peddle their misleading industrial fakery?" he asked. "What's next, a booth for Bayer to promote Roundup? Shall we just start calling it Expo Whatever?"

GMO Controversy

The Impossible Burger is one of several new plant-based — or in this case lab-created — meat products that provide the look and taste of meat while claiming to be more environmentally friendly than industrial meat production. The product is served in several thousand restaurants in the U.S., including chains like White Castle and The Cheesecake Factory (where it is falsely described as "natural" on the menu). Burger King recently announced it would test market the Impossible Burger in 60 restaurants in St. Louis.

But the Impossible Burger has been controversial because it is made using genetic engineering. The burger's key ingredient is called heme, which is produced using a genetically engineered yeast that is fermented and multiplied. The GMO-derived heme gives the Impossible Burger its meat-like taste and red blood-like color.

In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised questions about the safety of the engineered heme after Impossible Foods applied for GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. Despite FDA's concerns, Impossible Foods put its GMO burger on the market for public consumption in 2016 anyway. Impossible Foods later submitted results from short-term rat feeding studies to the FDA and, last year, the agency said that it had no more questions about heme's safety.

No Transparency About Impossible Burger's GMO Ingredient

Impossible Foods plans to introduce a retail version of the Impossible Burger this year, which is why they exhibited at Natural Products Expo West, according to Nick Halla, the company's chief strategy officer. He said that people at the show had been very receptive to the Impossible Burger.

But, Natural Products Expo West attendees didn't know they were eating a GMO product. Impossible Foods' exhibit booth and literature made no mention that the Impossible Burger's key ingredient, heme, is genetically engineered.

When asked why they weren't transparent about the burger being GMO, Halla said the recipe cards being given out wasn't appropriate literature for describing the genetic engineering process. But, a more detailed brochure at the booth also said nothing about GMO heme, only describing it as "magic ingredient found in all living things." Halla said Impossible Foods is transparent about its use of genetic engineering on its website.

But Lampe said Impossible Foods lack of transparency at Natural Products Expo West was unethical. "Impossible Foods is legally allowed to not provide that information to consumers. Legal? Yes. Responsible and ethical? I don't think so," Lampe commented.

GMO Products Allowed at Natural Products Expo West if They Don't Make "Natural" Claims

So, how did a GMO food company get into the world's biggest natural food trade show? According to the standards for exhibitors at Natural Products Expo West, a company can promote foods with GMO ingredients as long as they don't claim their products are natural.

"We don't rule out GMOs yet, because if we did we could have Natural Products Expo in my child's school gymnasium (because genetically engineered ingredients are so pervasive in the food supply)," said Michelle Zerbib, standards director at New Hope Network, which hosts Natural Products Expo West. "What we do with GMO products is that we don't allow them to market as natural, 100 percent natural or any natural claims," she said.

New Hope's ingredients standard for exhibitors requires the use of non-GMO yeast but only as a flavor enhancer. Impossible Foods uses a GMO yeast to make the Impossible Burger's key ingredient.

"There's a standard for (non-GMO) yeast but that's according to flavoring, not the product itself," Zerbib said.

Zerbib also admitted that New Hope Network doesn't have the staff or time to closely inspect each exhibitor's ingredients. "We just don't have the resources to do that," she said.

Lampe said it is difficult for New Hope to keep up with the growing number of products made using new genetic engineering technologies.

"Unfortunately, there are an increasing number of synbio ingredients and products already in the marketplace in foods and dietary supplements, and trying to determine show acceptance in light of the rapidly changing marketplace, with no mandated federal labeling for the new classes of GMO products and no testing protocols in place, is not an enviable task for the New Hope standards folks," Lampe said.

"This is Not Clean Food"

Could other companies that sell GMO products like the non-browning Arctic Apple or GMO salmon also exhibit at Natural Products Expo West if they don't make natural claims? Yes, said Zerbib.

But she also said it may be time for New Hope Network to look at revising their ingredient standard as new GMO products come to market.

"We probably need to revisit it maybe take another look because there have been a lot of different technologies that have come out since we incorporated our ingredients standard in 2009," she added.

Alan Lewis, director of government affairs and food and agriculture policy for Natural Grocers, said the natural food community needs to take a strong stand against new GMO products like the Impossible Burger.

"If we are going to apply the cautionary principle to every other suspect food ingredient, then certainly synthetic heme, grown in genetically modified cultures, qualifies for scrutiny. Novel molecules and unknown ingredients have never been embraced in natural food. What are we thinking? This is not clean food," said Lewis.

Ken Roseboro is editor and publisher of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, a monthly news magazine that focuses on threats posed by GM foods and the growing non-GMO food trend.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

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But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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