Pilsner’s students find evidence of genetically modified organisms in foods labeled ‘non-GMO certified’

January 17, 2014

From left: Sara Conti and Wendy Chen, who won the highest ranking from judges, present their research poster to Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Rick Pilsner.

Students in PUBHLTH490PI: The DNA Experience, a class at UMass Amherst taught by Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Rick Pilsner, had some surprising findings in their end of semester research projects. The dozen students in the course isolated DNA from foods they typically eat, and found inconsistencies in items labeled as being free of genetically-modified organisms (GMO).

“The curriculum required students to conduct a number of experiments where they isolated their own DNA and performed basic molecular biology techniques,” notes Pilsner.

Students also were required to complete an independent research project, working in small teams to analyze DNA in food for genetic markers indicating the presence of GMOs.

“Students’ results were intriguing. Some non-GMO labeled food items tested positive for GMO markers,” says Pilsner. The DNA Experience is the first lab-based course for undergraduate public health majors at UMass Amherst. The teams made poster presentations using their findings to faculty from the Division of Environmental Health Sciences.

These faculty ranked students on presentation style, clarity of hypotheses, quality of the students’ detailed explanations of research results, and the teams’ thoughts on the public health implications of their findings and GMOs in general.

 “It was astonishing to recognize that without even realizing it, I have been consuming food that has been altered on a molecular level,” says Public Health Sciences major Nicole Murphy.

“More than adjusting my food consumption, this research project made me an informed consumer, aware of the issue and how it may affect myself, and our public health community,” she adds.

The Non-GMO Project Standard, a set of guidelines to help in labeling food for GMOs, specifies that foods containing more than 0.9% GMOs will not be labeled as Non-GMO Project Verified. However, the process does not test finished foods - only the raw ingredients.

“This leaves a lot of room for GMO contamination during food processing,” Pilsner explains. “Although these findings are not conclusive, it suggests that some discrepancies with products and their labels may exist,” he adds.