- Associated Press - Saturday, May 17, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - Genetically modified foods have been around for years, but most people in the United States have no idea if they are eating them.

The Food and Drug Administration says such foods don’t need to be labeled, so some states are moving forward on their own.

Vermont recently became state the first to require labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Bills and ballot initiatives are pending in many more.

What about the rest of the country? And does labeling matter?

There’s much confusion about genetically modified foods and their safety.

Opponents, who at times have protested in the streets, say consumers have the right to know whether their food contains GMOs. The food industry and companies that genetically engineer seeds have pushed back against the labeling laws, saying GMOs are safe and labels would be misleading.

A look at the debate and some of the facts about genetically modified foods:

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WHAT THEY ARE

GMOs are hard for the average consumer to grasp. You can’t touch or feel a GMO.

Genetically modified foods are plants or animals that have had genes copied from other plants or animals inserted into their DNA.

It’s not a new idea.

Humans have been tinkering with genes for centuries through selective breeding. Think dogs bred to be more docile pets, cattle bred to be beefier or tomatoes bred to be sweeter. Turkeys were bred to have bigger breasts - better for Thanksgiving dinner.

What’s different about genetically modified or engineered foods is that the manipulation is done in a lab. Engineers don’t need to wait for nature to produce a desired gene. They speed up the process by transferring a gene from one plant or animal to another.

What are the desired traits? Most of the nation’s corn and soybeans are genetically engineered to resist pests and herbicides. A papaya in Hawaii is modified to resist a virus. The FDA is considering an application from a Massachusetts company to approve a genetically engineered salmon that would grow faster than traditional salmon.

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