Tattoos or GMOs? Scenes From the ‘Natural Foods’ Section



The “Natural Foods” section of any grocery store is a truly fascinating place. Here you find clusters of people intently reading fine print ingredient labels and sorting through the growing number of label claims fighting for space on product packaging. There’s a little something for everyone – from non-GMO verified, gluten-free, organic and dairy free to one of my favourites: Nudge brand macaroni which features “Grass-Fed Cheese.”

I’ve had many conversations with other shoppers about why they like the ‘natural section.’ Not surprisingly, the conversation usually comes around to the need for making healthy food choices, which for many consumers means more natural, less processing and no genetic modification.

On a recent trip to the natural section at my local grocery store, I happened upon a shopper who was intently hunting for products featuring the Non GMO Verified label – the sticker that verifies the manufacturer has followed best practices to avoid using GMOs in the product. A short discussion and exchange revealed that the young man didn’t trust GMOs, questioned their safety, while muttering a few disparaging words about Monsanto. It was a typical conversation I’ve had many times. But as we spoke, I found myself fixating on the huge tattoo that ran the full length of the man’s arm.

As I tracked the slithering tattoo down the man’s bicep I thought to myself: “he’s afraid of eating genetically modified food that’s been proven safe, but has no concerns about pumping ink into his body to paint a snake on his arm!”

I’ve been around GMOs for almost 20 years. As a farm journalist, I’ve written about farmers’ experience with the technology; in my public relations career, I worked on campaigns – both farm and consumer focused – to increase understanding of GMO crops; I even brought Roundup Ready corn to my native Newfoundland to help my dairy farming friends on The Rock increase the chances of establishing corn on the island.

During that time, I’ve learned that a big part of the consumer backlash against GMOs rests with the fact that food is a very emotional and personal choice for consumers. There’s lots of food to choose from and why should you consume something like GMOs that you fear will cause you harm? Why not reach for the alternative? Of course, the anti-GMO movement has done a tremendous job of promoting and fuelling fear of GMOs. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence (more than 1,000 scientific studies over 30 years); nearly 20 years of biotech crops in the food supply; and three trillion meals and snacks consumed containing biotech ingredients; the movement soldiers on, committed to convincing consumers that the technology is a ticking time bomb poised to wreak havoc on humanity.

But what about the health impacts of tattoos? Lots of people have them, including my friend from the natural section. They must be safe. According to Dr. Andreas Luch, there are about 120 million in the western hemisphere who have at least one tattoo. Earlier this year, Lurch helped author a review of the tattoo health implications for the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin.

Lurch concludes there is very little known about the risks of injecting ink under the skin and there is no proof that it’s safe. A quick check with the US Food and Drug Administration shows it also shares Luch’s contention. The FDA points out the health risks associated with unsterilized needles have been long known, but very little is known about the safety of tattoo inks, especially the ink colourings (pigments) used. Tattoo inks mostly contain organic pigments, but Luch’s assessment notes they can also include preservatives and contaminants like nickel, arsenic and lead. In one study in Switzerland, banned preservatives are found in 14 per cent of tattoo ink samples.

Other tattoo health implications noted in the German report include: one to five per cent of tattoo seekers suffer bacterial infections while some have allergic reactions; unlike surface cosmetics, ink is injected into the skin making it available to blood vessels, nerves and immune cells. Luch also notes that examinations of deceased bodies indicate that fading tattoos are the result of ink loss – in some cases, up to 90 per cent. Where does it go? And we won’t even mention that there are practically no industry standards for ink ingredients and industry regulation is minimal, at best.

If the anti-GMO crowd had this type of ammunition, crop biotechnology wouldn’t stand a chance.

So why doesn’t the potential health implications of tattoos appear to register with consumers? As I see it, just like food, the decision to get a tattoo is a very emotional, personal choice for people. Some are seeking attention; others make a statement of rebellion or self-expression; many honour a loved one; and some are simply vain – excessively proud and concerned about their own appearance. Of course, alcohol has also been known to play a roll … but that’s another story.

I don’t have a tattoo. I was thinking about it until I wrote this column. I need more safety evidence before I get that “I Love GMOs” tattoo. Wonder how that would play in the natural foods section?

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