Coming to the Cross-Roads with GMO-Free Labeling?
The Food Journal
February 19, 2013
- In the years 2009-2012 where there were 77,663 new food and beverage product introductions - just 0.002 percent (or 1,752) had a GMO-Free claim on the product. According to Lynn Dornblasser of Mintel, "We think that GMO-Free labeling will continue to grow--controversy about GMOs continues, but it appears that younger consumers are more focused or interested in them." Lempert Commentary
- The regulatory implications of GMO-Free labels... should the government play a role in monitoring and implementing labeling on both sides? Regardless of government standards and guidelines, knowledge is power, and modern day consumers may take issue of labeling into their own hands and/or other solutions will be explored. Hentges Commentary
- The defeat of Prop 37 is a significant surprise and setback for organizations and activist networks representing millions of consumers who want all foods produced with or containing biotech ingredients labeled (mandatory labeling). Food, Inc. filmmaker Robert Kenner produced a video where parents discuss food illiteracy with processed foods and new chemicals and ingredients not in their foods when they were kids.
- Voluntary labeling is available to those that want to pursue it despite the FDA's concerns that consumers will assume that "free" of bioengineered material means that "zero" bioengineered material is present, and is therefore assumed to be superior. They suggest the label: "We do not use ingredients that were produced using biotechnology." Therefore, absence claims may be part of the solution for those who believe voluntary labeling provides meaningful information.
- Many feel a protracted state by state battle over labeling is counterproductive, wastes resources and they want to avoid it by finding ways to address legitimate concerns. Either way, the issue is not going away in the states of Washington and Vermont.
- Are absence claims sufficient to the consumer for products to undertake the expense? The market will decide. Strauss Commentary A Forbes response to Mark Bittman's NY Times article has a unique take on absence labels.
How Absence Claims are being applied:
The FDA first required labeling of food produced using biotechnology in 1992. To date, the products produced using GMO's don't have characteristics requiring labeling under the FDA policy guidance.
But the Government can and will regulate voluntary labels. To the extent that a label makes a "non" claim, then the FTC and FDA, as well as state governments, can get involved to discern if the absence label on any product makes the presence of a legal ingredient bad. The FDA's guidance about labeling dairy products produced without the product r-bST exemplified the Agency's enforceable intent - - absence claims must be truthful, verifiable and not misleading. (2/1994).
Voluntary versus Mandatory:
Relative to what lies beyond Prop 37, the core issue is whether a robust voluntary labeling scheme will satisfy those calling for mandatory labeling to ensure informed choices. Those that want to limit or prevent the use of the technology aren’t likely to be satisfied with anything less than a label that doesn’t strengthen their ability to pressure retailers and brands to segment the market. At the international level, the Codex Alimentarius (WHO/FAO) (click here to download University of Idaho report) debated voluntary vs. mandatory labeling for over two decades). In 2011, this culminated in a compilation intended to develop labeling guidance to enhance consumer protection.
While its final guidance provided advice to both sides of the labeling debate, mandatory and voluntary, a Biotechnology Industry Organization spokesperson was quoted as interpreting the agreement as "no new guidelines needed because the guidelines for other foods apply to biotech foods as well." (The Hagstrom Report, July 5, 2011, "Biotech labeling interpretations differ.")
What Does GMO-Free Mean to the Consumer?
Several manufacturers and specialty retailers pursue a voluntary non-GMO seal called the Non-GMO Project. Since total absence cannot be guaranteed, the project stresses best practices, analysis when prudent and appropriate, and applies thresholds. Organic foods will continue to offer a non-GMO option since GMO's are prohibited by the organic standard. Proponents for labeling claim that there should be options for those that want to avoid GMO's but don't necessarily want an organic product.
The question is whether GMO-Free will be understood by the consumer.