News Briefs

UMass Students Find GMOs in “GMO-Free” Foods

Last fall, Rick Pilsner, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at UMass Amherst, gave his students a challenge that would be of interest to many consumers: to determine whether foods labeled as free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are, in fact, free of GMOs.

Their findings: in many cases, they’re not.

Pilsner gave the assignment to undergraduates on his “DNA Experience” course, which is designed to give students hands-on experience in molecular biology and then apply that experience to a public health issue. After spending most of the semester isolating and then genotyping their own DNA, the students took on a final research project, which sent them to local grocery stores to buy foods they commonly eat, in both conventional versions and versions labeled as free of GMOs.

What they found will give pause to any consumer who makes it a point to choose food labeled as free of GMOs: in some cases, those foods did, indeed, contain genetically modified organisms. While Pilsner did not compile all his students’ findings to determine what percentage of those labeled foods tested positive for GMOs, he noted a “positive trend between processed foods and testing positive for GMOs”—in other words, the more heavily processed a food was, the more likely it was to show the presence of GMOs, even when its label suggested otherwise.

Pilsner declined to name specific products that failed the test, noting that the results could not be considered definitive. “A lot of these students, it was their first time doing this research, so their findings are not conclusive and need to be replicated,” he said. In addition, he said, the work was conducted in a teaching lab, where the conditions don’t necessarily meet the higher standards of a research lab, meaning the work could be subject to cross-contamination, for instance.

Still, Pilsner noted, when he and a teaching assistant conducted their own, similar research under better conditions, they, too, found a number of cases in which foods labeled as free of GMOs tested positive for such organisms.

So why did so many allegedly GMO-free products not pass the test? One possible explanation, Pilsner said: the Non GMO Project—the sole independent organization that verifies GMO-free claims in North America, granting qualifying products the right to bear its “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal—only tests the “inputs” of foods (in other words, the raw materials), not the end product. “So there’s lots of room for cross-contamination,” with products that do contain GMOs, such as in a processing plant that also makes conventional foods, he said.

In addition, Pilsner noted, the Non GMO Project does not actually require products to be completely free of GMOs to bear its seal. Rather, the group’s standards allow products to contain up to 0.9 percent GMO ingredients, following the threshold set by the European Union, which requires foods containing more than 0.9 percent GMOs to be labeled as such.

The student project, Pilsner said, underscores the need for consumers to be informed. “It’s really understanding what that label means—and it’s not always what you think it means,” he said.

That’s an awareness he now carries to the grocery store himself. With a young child at home and a second on the way, Pilsner said, he generally opts for food labeled GMO-free when he’s food shopping. “But now knowing that the label doesn’t carry that much weight, my behavior as a consumer has shifted a little,” he said. “I would not automatically reach for a ‘GMO-free’ product, knowing that it’s not necessarily GMO free.”

Consumer and public health groups have been pushing for government regulations requiring food companies to label foods that contain GMOs, but with limited success so far. In California and Washington, voter referenda that would have required labeling failed to pass after the food industry lobbied aggressively against the measures. In Massachusetts, several labeling bills are pending at the Statehouse, including proposals filed by state Reps. Ellen Story (D-Amherst) and Todd Smola (R-Palmer).•


Greenfield Moves to Clean Up Blight

Condemned buildings, tumbledown houses or outbuildings, fire hazards, unlocked buildings that invite unauthorized entry, yards full of unregistered cars and rusting junk: Greenfield officials are vowing to get rid of such nuisances in town, or at least reduce the number of them. Leading the charge is Mayor Bill Martin, who has put forward an ordinance requiring all property owners to maintain their premises or pay $300 a day until problems identified by the town are corrected.

The ordinance must be approved by the Town Council. If and when it is approved, it would go into effect immediately, Greenfield’s Director of Planning and Development, Eric Twarog, told the Advocate.

Twarog, who did the research that laid the foundation for the ordinance and then drafted it, said the Greenfield ordinance was influenced by similar regulatory frameworks in Marlboro, Milford, Walpole and other communities, most in the eastern part of the state. Twarog said the ordinance was not influenced in any special way by the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods program recently developed in Amherst to deal with poorly maintained rental properties. Rather, he said, a group of Greenfield officials had met at regular intervals even before Martin became mayor to talk about “enforcement issues and problem properties.”

A concern related to the proposed ordinance is how to pay for the extra work it might entail. Amherst is paying for its program by charging owners of rental properties a registration fee; in Greenfield, Twarog pointed out, the “demographics” are different, one difference being that the properties being focused on there are not necessarily rental properties whose owners can pass the cost of a $100 fee on to tenants. “We didn’t want to institute a fee on the residents,” he said. “We have a full-time building inspector plus an assistant inspector, and there is a part-time inspector being advertised for.”

Both Martin and Twarog have explained that the ordinance is seen as a money saver for the town in the long run, because the town has to deal with fire, health, safety and crime problems that result when properties are neglected. Better maintenance “saves the Health Department having to deal with issues, the Fire Department having to deal with issues,” Twarog said. And well-maintained properties keep up the value of all other properties in the surrounding area.•


McCain the Younger Hits the Valley

She’s been called an “attention whore,” “the worst of millennial culture,” a “noted idiot,” a “useful idiot” and a “giant pain in the ass”—the last by her own father.

And you kind of get the feeling that she doesn’t mind.

Meghan McCain, a Columbia University art history major and the 29-year-old daughter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), first grabbed national attention with a blog she wrote chronicling life on the campaign trail during his father’s unsuccessful campaign for president in 2008. Since then, she’s written three books: a children’s book about her dad and two political books, both of which manage to work the word “sexy” in the title. Today she’s a columnist for the Daily Beast, the host of a show on Pivot called “Raising McCain,” and a prolific tweeter, using her 140 allotted characters to weigh in on pop culture (“THE WALKING DEAD IS BACK TONIGHT, FINALLY!!!!!!!!!), battle with her critics (she recently called out the Salon writer who dubbed her “the worst of millennial culture” for hypocrisy after he congratulated her for winning an award from GLAAD), and post the kind of pictures lots of 20-somethings post (beer-swilling selfies) and the kind most don’t (her parents at a dinner with Henry Kissinger, captioned “Old School”).

McCain describes herself as an iconoclast on Pivot’s website: “I am concerned about the environment. I love to wear black. I think government is best when it stays out of people’s lives and business as much as possible. I love punk rock. I believe in a strong national defense. I have a tattoo. I believe government should always be efficient and accountable. I have lots of gay friends. And yes, I am a Republican.”

On Thursday, Feb. 27, McCain will bring her new-school maverick self to Mount Holyoke College, where she’ll speak about “the importance of challenging critics and standing up for personal values and beliefs,” according to the college. The talk, which is free and open to the public, is at 7 p.m. in Gamble Auditorium in MHC’s Art Building.• —MT


State AG Would Keep Casinos From Placing Liens on Customers’ Homes

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has asked the state’s Gaming Commission to ban casinos from placing liens on customer’s homes, drawing a parallel between casino companies and predatory lenders. Experts on the gaming industry have said that that practice is not common, but two companies that have applied for licenses to operate casinos in Massachusetts have used home liens to collect money owed them by patrons. One is Mohegan Sun, which made a bid to build a casino in Palmer that was defeated in a local vote, but is now seeking a license for a gambling resort in Revere. The other is Foxwoods, which has applied for a license to build a casino in Fall River.

The issue of home liens placed by casinos was discussed in the Boston Globe on Sunday, Feb. 9. Immediately afterward, Coakley wrote Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby, “As the Massachusetts Gaming Commission nears licensing decisions for Category 1 (resort-casino) and Category 2 (slot machine) establishments, I write with an issue for your consideration as you establish regulations concerning the issuance of credit by gaming licensees…

“As you are likely aware, a report in this weekend’s Boston Globe highlighted some concerning lending practices and aggressive debt collection methods employed by several gaming operators, including the attachment of liens on customers’ homes. This story highlights the need for a robust set of consumer protection regulations before these establishments begin operations.

“Our experience in the mortgage lending context has shown us that effective regulations are critical to prevent predatory lending practices and protect consumers. The bedrock protection against predatory lending in the mortgage lending world is that a creditor must reasonably assess a borrower’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms…

“Protecting against predatory lending and overly aggressive debt collection in the gaming industry is critical because the odds are stacked against the patron being able to earn back the value of the loan. That is why the practice of casinos placing liens on the homes of customers is deeply concerning. This practice by the gaming industry in which customers’ homes are put at risk should not be allowed.

“Our office has expertise crafting consumer protection regulations in various areas, including the aforementioned mortgage lending regulations, and debt collection regulations. As you begin the process of establishing regulations… our office is available to work with you and your staff to share with your our experience in crafting regulations that effectively protect consumers, while allowing businesses to operate fairly in the marketplace.”

This is not the first time Coakley has tried to ensure that casinos will not operate in ways that are detrimental to the economic and social wellbeing of the commonwealth. In 2010, she asked for legislation that would prevent money laundering by casinos and their wealthy customers, pointing out that casinos were ideal sites for the rehabilitation of illegal money. She also asked legislators to “tighten up” the state’s laws relating to organized crime, which includes loan sharking and prostitution—enterprises associated with casino environments—and wiretapping. She complained later, however, that the Legislature only gave her a weak version of what she needed.• —SK


Lively Bounced From Panel at “Yellow Harvard”

Springfield pastor Scott Lively, an internationally known anti-gay activist who has supported draconian laws against homosexuality in Uganda and elsewhere, is running for governor of Massachusetts—running on a mission to do battle with the dark gods of liberalism in a state he regards as LGBT-coddling and socialist [“It Would Take a Miracle,” January 7, 2014,].

Last week Lively e-mailed us that he had been un-invited to appear on a panel of gubernatorial candidates at Harvard Law School. The reason given was that a case alleging that Lively had committed crimes against humanity, brought by gay activists from Uganda and now pending in federal court in Springfield, would be a “distraction.” But Lively, who can always be depended on to react in character, says he sees through the excuse.

“I’m turning ‘Yellow’ Harvard’s lemon into lemonade,” he declares, “and taking this as another teaching opportunity to offer simple, plain truth about the true nature of ‘gay’ culture and its homo-fascist agenda.

“This is my definition of the term:

“Homo-Fascism is a form of extreme left-wing radicalism which attempts to establish rigid totalitarian controls over public discussions and policies addressing sexual morality, and to punish or suppress all disapproval of homosexuality and related sexual behaviors.’”

“If you cross the ‘gays,’” adds the crusader, “they try to destroy you! And if you don’t back down in the face of relentless persecution, they eventually sue you for ‘Crimes Against Humanity.’

“My guess is this won’t be the last time we see homo-fascism influencing the 2014 gubernatorial race in Massachusetts.”

At press time we had not received a return call from a public affairs officer at Harvard Law School verifying that Lively had been excluded from such an event.• —SK


Amherst Program Registers Half of Known Rental Units

Amherst officials have received documentation for slightly more than half of the 1,570 known rental properties in town just over a month after a bylaw requiring landlords to register and receive permits for such properties went into effect. Applications will continue to be accepted for the foreseeable future.

According to a letter to town property owners, as part of the registration process, landlords are required to “submit a parking plan, self-certify to compliance with health, safety, fire, noise, nuisance regulations of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Town of Amherst.” The self-certification process asks landlords to affirm that their properties are sound, both externally and internally, and provide “healthy living conditions”—including a clean, secure living space, a lack of pests or vermin, and no evidence of active hazards, including fire hazards, or excessive moisture. Landlords must also submit parking plans, since inadequate or poorly maintained parking spaces—pocked with potholes in some cases—have been an inconvenience to students and, when there is overflow, a nuisance to neighbors.

A secondary goal of the program is to educate tenants, including student tenants, about their rights, town officials say. “We want them to have smoke detectors, we want them to have egress that allows them to get out in an emergency,” Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek told the Advocate last summer, when the program was still in the planning stages. “We want them to have parking that’s safe, parking that’s not on the grass in the front yard. We think tenants will begin to ask this question: Is this unit registered? Do you have a permit?”•

Author: Advocate staff

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