AGBIOVIEW SPECIAL: Issues in Labeling of Foods Enhanced by Agricultural Biotechnology
Feb 04, 2002
AGBIOVIEW SPECIAL: Issues in Labeling Foods Enhanced by Agricultural Biotechnology
Labeling of foods derived from transgenic plants has been a hot issue and will garner more attention in the future. Call for labeling is also a potent tool in the hands of those opposed to this technology for whatever reason. We hear it all the time: "Why not label these foods if you are so sure of its safety?" or that "Consumers should have a choice. They have a right to know what they are eating".
While the questions are seemingly simple, the issue is not. There are complex issues related to safety, cost, truth in advertising, choice, fairness, logistics, science, trade-barrier, unfair business practices, regulatory responsibility, accountability, legal liability, and many factors at play here. Thus labeling is not an issue to be treated lightly or to be conceded just to appease the loud minority.
I believe that the current FDA regulations are serving the consumers in the US well by protecting them against any potential misuse of labeling and misinformation tactics while judiciously allowing for the progress of technology. One does not have to label every food just because of its development process as long as they are substantially equivalent. Labels not based on science will simply penalize the new technology and does great harm to the consumers and would eventually take away their choice. Just look at Europe!
Kim Nill of the American Soybean Association has just argued clearly how "GMO Labeling" would decrease global food safety (Impulse Protein News, February 2002). See http://www.inpulsemag.org/english/features/f18.html
I have put together some additional thoughts, diverse arguments and opinions below here to help you wade through this issue of food labeling,
Food labeling as an important consumer protection is harmed by so-called "right to know" campaigns:
As demonstrated in Europe and by the statements of the groups aggressively lobbying for the labeling for foods grown using biotechnology, consumers lose choice and food costs increase. Activists know that food companies, rather than explain that such a label does not change the food, will simply avoid the need for such a label by banning the use of such foods.
It's not consumers who caused the ban in Europe. Food labeling Europe only resulted in a ban after certain unscrupulous food retailers engaged in false and misleading advertising and marketing programs claiming their "GMO-free" foods were safer, more nutritious or of higher quality. Supermarket tracking data demonstrated that in the first three months of "GMO" labeling in the UK, consumer purchase patterns did not change. It was only after Iceland Foods and promoters of organic foods began to advertise and market their products as superior and safer that other food retailers felt forced response and go GMO-free as well. The Advertising Standards Board of the U.K. later ruled that these marketing practices were false and misleading, but the damage was done. Independent polling of consumers in the U.S. show, when presented with all the information, do not want such labels.
Food labels in this country are an important consumer protection, providing food safety, quality and nutritional information which informs consumer choices and protects them from misleading marketing claims. This consumer protection principal dates back to the late 1800's and Abraham Lincoln who appointed the first chemist of the United States. This precusor to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was established, in part, to address the growing abuses of snake oil salesmen in making misleading claims about their own and their competitors products.
The Wall Street Journal,reporting on the European labeling scheme, noted that the GMO labels caused consumers to be more confused about food safety and nutrition issues. The Brittish Hearth Association, other independent health organization and public health officials reported that consumers were making misinformed and poor choices regarding food as relates to health issues due to the GMO labeling and associated misleading marketing. In the U.S. the Center for Science in the Public Interest has conducted polls showing consumers are misled by GMO claims and filed a related complaint with the US Food and Drug Administration.
Today's food labels are required to show if the food is altered in any way that impacts the safety (i.e., allergenicity), nutrition, quality or basic expectation for the product. If a food grown using a biotechnology production method was not demonstrated through extensive testing to be equivalent, it would either not be approved for commercial sale or would be required to have information on the label indicating the relevant changes.
By asserting the so-called "right to know" principal into this important consumer protection, consumers are misled to believing there is a difference in the safety, nutrition or quality of the foods. This principal dictates that any individual or group's social, economic, environmental, religious or political concerns can force the rest of society to bear the burdens and costs of their special interest. The same groups lobbying for labels for foods grown using biotechnology production methods have lobbied for mandatory animal welfare labels and a range of other production-oriented standards (fair trade, pesticide use) which forces the cost of segregation and providing these non-safety, non-nutrition, non-ingredient and non-quality standards they care about onto the rest of society.
Today, consumers who want to make the choice of purchasing foods not grown using biotechnology production methods can do so by purchasing certified organic foods, just like consumers who want to purchase foods produced using certain religious standards can purchase Kosher or Halal-certified foods.
Economics of Food Labeling.
- Elise Golan, Fred Kuchler, and Lorraine Mitchell with contributions from Cathy Greene and Amber Jessup.; Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural
Economic; Report No. 793. December 2000.http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer793/
Abstract: Federal intervention in food labeling is often proposed with the aim of achieving a social goal such as improving human health and safety, mitigating environmental hazards, averting international trade disputes, or supporting domestic agricultural and food manufacturing industries. Economic theory suggests, however, that mandatory food-labeling requirements are best suited to alleviating problems of asymmetric information and are rarely effective in redressing environmental or other spillovers associated with food production and consumption. Theory also suggests that the appropriate role for government in labeling depends on the type of information involved and the level and distribution of the costs and benefits of providing that information. This report traces the economic theory behind food labeling and presents three case studies in which the government has intervened in labeling and two examples in which government intervention has been proposed.
'Genetically Modified' Label Confuses UK Shoppers
- Steve Stecklow, The Wall Street Journal Oct 27, 1999
Foodstuff: `Genetically Modified' On the Label Means ...Well, It's Hard to Say --- Attempt at Clarity in U.K. Brings Much Confusion; FDA Studies the Issue --- `Non-GM' Isn't `GM-Free' ----
LONDON -- It seems simple enough: Let consumers know when they're buying bioengineered food by requiring a label. It is, according to this story, an idea being promoted heavily in the U.S. by groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and even by some members of Congress.
But a trip up and down the supermarket aisles of Britain, which has required such labeling since March, shows the new law hasn't exactly made things easier for discerning shoppers. Rather, it has spawned a bewildering array of marketing claims, counterclaims and outright contradictions that only a food scientist possibly could unravel.
Take cheese. One supermarket chain here labels its cheese as being "made using genetic modification," the European catchword for bioengineering. But other supermarket chains, whose cheese is made exactly the same way, haven't changed their labels, saying the cheese itself contains no genetically modified ingredients.
Then there's Birds Eye frozen beef burgers. The label on a box purchased last week states that one ingredient, soya protein, is "produced from genetically modified soya." But a spokesman for maker Unilever PLC insists that the soya isn't genetically modified. The company has reformulated the product, he explains, but has yet to replace the box.
The small print on a Haagen-Dazs chocolate-covered ice-cream bar has no genetically modified ingredients listed, but consumers who question the company about it are sent a letter stating that the bar's chocolate coatings, in fact, contain soya oil that "may have been derived from genetically modified soya, but it is identical to any other soya oil and therefore does not contain any genetically modified material." The letter adds, "We are, however, investigating whether there are suitable alternative oils."
All of this may seem puzzling to American shoppers, who so far aren't up in arms over whether the food they buy includes ingredients that have been tinkered with in a laboratory. After all, that's already the case with many U.S. products. But European consumers, who have lived through such recent food scares as beef linked to "mad cow" disease, salmonella-contaminated eggs and dioxin-tainted animal feed, are taking no chances, even though there's no proof that bioengineered foods pose any health risks.
The result has been a biotech backlash that at times, the story says, borders on hysteria. In Britain, tabloid newspapers routinely refer to genetically modified products as "Frankenstein food." One prisoner even went on a hunger strike demanding that no genetically modified food be served to inmates.
Critics say bioengineered foods offer consumers no obvious benefit and that despite industry and government assurances, not enough research has been done to assure they are safe. Environmental groups have expressed concern that genetically modified plants could have unintended side effects, including killing beneficial insects and, through the spread of pollen, promoting growth of herbicide-resistant "super weeds" and antibiotic-resistant "super bugs." Others fear genetically modified foods could cause dangerous allergic reactions in some people.
In response to widespread consumer outcry, the European Union last year approved legislation that required its 15 member countries to begin labeling all foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, namely corn and soybean in which new genes have been added to provide traits such as insect resistance.
While no such plans have been announced in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration were cited as saying last week that it plans hearings around the country this fall to gauge public opinion on the issue. Already, several American health-food companies have begun slapping labels on their products declaring that they contain no genetically modified ingredients.
But before America leaps into mandatory labeling, the government, retailers and consumer groups might want to take a look at the far-reaching impact such a law has had in Britain.
When the European Union introduced its legislation last year, Britain's agriculture minister called it "a triumph for consumer rights to better information." Britain went on to enact the toughest labeling standards in Europe, requiring even restaurants, caterers and bakers to list genetically modified ingredients. Violations are punishable by fines of as much as $8,400, and the government says it intends to conduct surveillance, including independent lab testing.
"This is not a health issue in any way," says J. R. Bell, head of the government's additives and novel-foods division, adding that his ministry believes the latest bioengineered products are safe. "This is a question of choice, of consumer choice."
But, in fact, as a direct result of the labeling law, there's hardly any choice now at all. That's because Britain's new law sparked a mad rush by manufacturers, retailers and restaurant chains to rid their products of any genetically modified ingredients so they wouldn't have to alter their labels and risk losing sales. Even some pet-food manufacturers are claiming their products contain no genetically modified ingredients.
Among the thousands of products sold in Britain that now claim not to contain any GM ingredients are Pillsbury UK Ltd.'s Green Giant vegetables and Old El Paso Mexican food, Kellogg cereals and Unilever's Van den Bergh Foods Beanfeast line. A spokesman for McDonald's Restaurants Ltd., which operates 1,000 restaurants in the United Kingdom, says, "We do not use any genetically modified products or ingredients that contain genetically modified material." He adds, however, that some ingredients, such as soya oil used in hamburger buns, "could have come from a source which itself is genetically modified at some point."
The rush to keep products from being branded as bioengineered is hardly surprising. When J. Sainsbury PLC, a supermarket chain, began selling a bioengineered tomato puree under its own brand in 1996, sales initially exceeded other, more expensive brands by 30%, though the product's label volunteered that it was genetically modified. But as the GM controversy heated up, sales slowed and, by the end of last year, "absolutely fell through the floor," says Alison Austin, Sainsbury's environmental manager. The product has since been taken off the market by its creator and distributor, Zeneca Plant Science, a unit of AstraZeneca PLC.
Having gotten the message that consumers don't want bioengineered foods, Sainsbury's and other supermarket chains, as well as food manufacturers that sell in Britain, launched extensive, monthslong reviews of their product formulations. They began changing recipes to eliminate soya and corn derivatives and ordered their suppliers to find new sources of nonbioengineered raw materials in places such as South America and Asia. Bob Mitchell, manager of food technical policy at Marks & Spencer PLC, which operates specialty food shops was quoted as saying, "We poured over something like 5,000 ingredients . . . and made changes to 1,800 recipes as part of this process. It was a colossal task."
Supermarkets soon began declaring in advertising that their own house brands, which in Britain can constitute more than half of all sales, no longer contained genetically modified ingredients.
But a close examination of stores' claims, based on interviews with supermarket executives, shows that one chain's definition of removing genetically modified ingredients isn't necessarily the same as another's.
Sainsbury's, for example, says on its Web site that it is "the first major U.K. supermarket to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from its own-brand products." Does that include food additives, such as sweeteners and flavorings, which may be genetically modified? Alison Austin, the company's environmental manager, replies, "To be honest, we have focused in on major ingredients" such as soya and maize proteins and oils, as well as lecithin, an emulsifier. As for other bioengineered ingredients, she says, "It takes time for the supply chain to provide alternatives."
Tesco PLC, Britain's leading supermarket chain, says it makes no distinction between major and minor genetically modified ingredients. As a result, 150 of its house-brand products are still labeled as containing GM ingredients. "When we say zero GM, we mean zero GM," says Simon Soffe, a Tesco spokesman.
Maybe so, but laboratories that test for genetically modified ingredients say it is almost impossible to guarantee that a product line contains absolutely no genetically modified ingredients. Many growers don't segregate bioengineered and nonbioengineered soybeans and corn. Moreover, genetically modified materials in highly processed additives or oils often can't be detected in testing. "If there's no way to test, then people are going to bend the rules and they're going to bend the truth," says Bruce Ferguson, president of EnviroLogix Inc., an environmental-testing company in Portland, Maine.
Some inconsistencies in supermarket claims can be attributed to the labeling law itself. At the moment, the European Union and British regulations require labeling only if genetically modified material is detectable in DNA or protein. Additives and flavorings are exempt.
That has led to some strange labeling dilemmas in items as simple as cheese. Traditionally, cheese was set using an enzyme called rennet, taken from the lining of calves' stomachs. But to appease vegetarians, many European cheese makers in recent years switched to an enzyme called chymosin that is produced from genetically modified bacteria.
There's no evidence that any genetically modified ingredient remains in the cheese after production. Still, one supermarket chain, Co-Op, decided to place labels on its cheese that say "made using genetic modification and so free from animal rennet." "It's a question of whether the retailer is honest or open in labeling it," says a Co-Op spokesman.
Meantime, Iceland, a small but scrappy convenience-store chain whose chairman claims to have coined the term "Frankenstein food," says it has switched to making its cheese with another enzyme that doesn't come from animals and isn't produced from genetically modified bacteria. "We've done them one better," says Bill Wadsworth, the chain's technical director. European Union officials say they are hoping to clear up some of the confusion in the marketplace. Last week, a panel of government representatives voted to extend the labeling law to cover additives and flavorings, a change that is expected to take effect next year and could force many manufacturers and fast-food restaurants to either change recipes, switch suppliers or begin labeling.
The EU also decided to address the problem of products "contaminated" with trace amounts of genetically modified material despite the best intentions of manufacturers. In a controversial decision, the panel recommended that products don't require labeling if each of the ingredients contains 1% bioengineered material or less. Consumer groups had argued that the limit should be one-tenth of that.
In the future, the EU may also try to define when a retailer or manufacturer may claim that a product is "GM-free," a phrase that already has sprung up in some advertising and promotional material. Many retailers, such as Marks & Spencer, instead use the term "non-GM," which they insist is different. "We would never call it GM-free because you could never guarantee that," Mr. Mitchell says.
And thornier labeling issues loom. In their competitive frenzy, some British supermarkets have begun introducing raw and frozen chicken that they claim was raised on feed containing no genetically modified ingredients - even though there isn't evidence that bioengineered material ends up in the meat. To accomplish this, Iceland convenience stores say they now buy their chickens in Brazil, instead of Britain. Marks & Spencer says it is about to introduce a new line of free-range, non-GM poultry, egg and pork products.
Sainsbury's has yet to join the non-GM chicken and pork parade, but Mrs. Austin says it's probably "inevitable" and adds it may only be a first step. "We are utterly adamant that if you wish to claim you are GM-free, then you are ultimately going to have to go as far as GM-free veterinary medicines," she says.
Predicted Failure of Mandatory Labels for Genetically Modified Foods
Alan McHughen . University of Saskatchewan
Full text at http://scope.educ.washington.edu/gmfood/commentary/ Excerpts Below...
Process-Based Labeling Is Fundamentally Flawed and Unworkable. Most consumers say they would like labels on foods produced using genetic modification technologies. The usual justification is to enable an informed choice in the market. I support informed choice and the ability to choose (or avoid) particular foods. But mandatory labeling based on a method of production, as opposed to the physical and chemical characteristics of the food itself, is fundamentally flawed and will not enable informed choice. To understand the many reasons why, we must start at the beginning, the very purpose of labeling.
What is the purpose of the label? What are the motivations behind the current push to label based on the processes of genetic technology? Currently, labels provide nutritional and health safety information. Labels can also be used for marketing and promotional purposes. Current labeling regulations require labels for all foods, Genetically Modified (GM) as well as others IF there is a change in nutritional composition or if an added component is toxic or allergenic. These regulations are based on the quantifiable chemical characteristics of the food product and not on the way the product was made. The current policy is objective, verifiable, and enforceable because the chemical properties of the food can be measured, confirmed and defended.
The mandatory label requirements proposed for products of GM foods don't fit any of these standards: they are not objective, verifiable, or enforceable. Requiring mandatory labels for all products of genetic technology appears to be based on subjectively satisfying the curiosity of one (albeit substantial) segment of the consumer population alone. This represents a basic shift from an objective, product-based approach to a subjective, process-based approach. We don't now require process-based labels, although a number of groups would like them--some people would welcome mandatory labels for foods produced according to Kosher or Halal standards, for example. Where will it end? Some people want to know which foods come from plants treated with ionizing radiation or chemical mutagens. There are some 1700 such plant varieties around the world, grown by conventional and organic farmers, and consumed by us, without any distinguishing label. Many people are more concerned with mutagenized food than with GM food. I
Real hazards are in the product and not the process by which it was made. The proponents of mandatory labeling demand a policy based on method of manufacture instead of composition of the product. The fundamental distinction between process and product comes as an epiphany with the realization that any hazards arise with the product and not the process by which the product was made. When we try to regulate based on a product's provenance instead of its composition, not only do we fail (because we can't apply objective assays to serve subjective criteria) but we also distract attention from the legitimate health safety and nutritional questions of the actual product.
An attack on Government Agencies? A regulatory policy mandating labeling for other than health safety and nutritional reasons requires not only a fundamental change in regulatory approach but will also jeopardize the credibility of all labels. It's also a vote of nonconfidence in our regulatory agencies. If the motivation for labeling is a consumer saying "I'm not sure it's safe," the correct response is not to acquiesce and require labels but to fire the bureaucrats and revamp the agency. It means consumers don't trust the bureaucracy; they're saying "I don't believe you, I don't trust you" when they refer to a government-approved food product deemed safe. If this is the case, let's drop the bureaucrats, save a huge pile of taxpayers' money, and just label everything. I don't advocate this because our bureaucrats seem to be doing a pretty good job at keeping hazardous foods off the shelves.
Setting a threshold amount to trigger a mandatory label. We also have to consider the actual amount of foreign DNA or protein in a food. An ordinary gene inserted into a plant contributes about 1 gene in 25,000 (depending on the species), so the additional DNA is pretty well immaterial. The protein produced from that gene is on average about 0.00004% of the protein in the plant. Requiring a label when even 1% of the total in a food product is this one variety reduces the dietary exposure to the recombinant product to 0.0000004%. This amount is probably undetectable and in any case will be less than the amount of rat hairs and insect parts consumed in the food. Mandating labels for this amount of the triggering substance would be absurd. In practice, all commodities carry contaminants. Today these contaminants include tiny amounts of GM material, even in carloads of non-GM grain. How? A load of non-GM wheat, for example, consists of a certain amount of expected, and tolerated, contaminants, including dirt, i
The Substantial Cost of Verification and Enforcement
Anti-technology activist groups have made much headway with the labeling issue. The approach seems to be, "If we can't keep GM products off the market entirely, then let's make as much trouble as possible for manufacturers." According to that rationale, it will cost food producers a huge amount of money to properly label all GM foods, so maybe the industry will just drop GM technology altogether when they see the increased cost of food scaring off those consumers who weren't already scared off by the label.
The bureaucracy of auditing. Yes, there is a huge cost associated with a mandatory label. It's not simply the cost of ink and stamps. It's a matter of auditing from the very beginning of the food production stream, starting with the seed companies and following through to the farmers, the grain companies, the food processors, the distributors, and marketers.
The paradox of the reverse onus. However, the huge cost is associated not with putting a label on but with keeping it off. This is the paradox of the reverse onus. For current labels, the manufacturer is responsible for defending the product-based, objective information on the label. With the advent of the process-based subjective label, the onus shifts to the manufacturer of the unlabeled food to prove why it doesn't need a label. The mandatory GM labeling responsibility appears to lie with the GM processor, but it's actually with the non-GM manufacturer. No one cares if a food labeled as GM is wrong, but they do care if an unlabeled food carries GM ingredients. There is no penalty for misapplying the GM label, but there is a penalty--a severe one--for failing to label. There has to be a paper trail to verify non-GM products. The non-GM food producer must document every step of the process, going back not to the farmer, but to the seed supplier. (The other major implication is that farmers will have to buy
In any case, verification assays to test positive cost less than assays to test negative, because the positive needs only one positive score on one assay to complete the verification but a non-GM label requires a series of negatives on every assay.
A problem with additional information on the label. Standard labels are already saturated with information. Most people don't read labels, period. Some read (or glance at) labels but buy the product regardless. A few, those on strict diets or with, for example, peanut allergies, read labels to look for particular nutritional or safety information. Only a small portion of society remaining outside of these groups would read additional labeling.
Putting additional information on a label, especially if it is unrelated to health or safety, is counterproductive, as the amount read is inversely proportional to content. The more information is present, the less is read, especially as consumers come to realize the superfluous information doesn't mean anything to health safety or nutrition.
A common label fails to distinguish real potential hazards. Putting the same label on every GM food, even if it is feasible, will be misleading and confusing to consumers. If two GM products carry the same label ("contains GM ingredients" or similar wording), the implication is that they are equally hazardous or require equal warning. This is demonstrably false; as we know, some products could be very hazardous and others benign. Yet, with the same label, consumers can't tell which is which.
If we're concerned about the safety of our feed, we need to know what it is about the food that might adversely affect us. A labeling policy based on chemical composition, as the current regime is, is objective and verifiable and therefore defensible and credible with consumers. A labeling system based not on composition but on provenance and prejudice is subjective, requiring a nonobjective manner of verification, which precludes credibility and is probably indefensible altogether.
Mandatory GM labels will satisfy no one. People demanding labels have varied and disparate motivations. Those demanding labels on ethical grounds will be dissatisfied at the tolerances and allowances. Vegetarians who want to know about animal genes in their vegetables will not get that information on a generic GM label. Those concerned about the safety of "foreign" DNA or protein might distinguish between a whole GM tomato and GM tomato paste or other products where the DNA and protein is removed or destroyed. A common GM label will not permit informed choice for any of these consumers. And all consumers will bear the brunt of the increased costs to all foods, GM or not, in an effort to appease the demands of a segment of society who will remain dissatisfied anyway.
The dramatic negative impact of mandatory GM labels on the poor. If the objective of mandatory labels for GM food products is to enable informed choice for consumers, it will fail. Most consumers will not be able to make an 'informed choice' for most food products. At the same time, the regulations will increase the price for all foods, not just those with GM ingredients. Paradoxically, the increases will be borne especially by those people demanding labels in order to avoid such products (which is fair enough--people making demands ought to pay for the implementation) and the poor. Those wishing to avoid GM foods already have a choice, without invoking unnecessary labeling regulations. Organic foods are GM free and increasingly available. But my major concern is with the poorer segments of our society, as they are typically underrepresented. At the bottom are people who buy the cheapest food at the market, regardless of what the label says. Why should these people have to pay more? Even if they were concer
At the next level are people with a bit more money. They shop carefully and judiciously. Their income and care permits an adequate volume of food and a reasonably balanced and diverse diet. A price rise means these people will become undernourished as they struggle to maintain either quantity of food or diversity and balance. They will no longer be able to afford both. I'm not prepared to sacrifice the real needs of these real people to appease the perceived needs of those demanding subjective labeling criteria.
Conclusion: The only way to develop and maintain a labeling system that is truthful, not misleading, and verifiable is to ensure it is based on objective criteria, such as the actual composition of the food, and not on subjective criteria, such as the method of manufacture. The current policy on food labeling may not be perfect, but it seems to work, and regulatory agencies can rightly and proudly point to their track records. In North America, 300 million consumers have been eating GM foods since 1994, with not one documented case of harm. I include this not to suggest complacency but to recognize that labels are best suited to serve objective criteria related to health safety and nutrition. Let's continue to improve on that system and seek to provide consumers with even more meaningful objective information about all foods.
CSPI Urges FDA to Halt Misleading 'Non-genetically Engineered' Food-label Claims
- CSPI Press Release, August 14, 2001
(Washington) The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take enforcement action against seven food manufacturers whose product labels deceive consumers with false or misleading claims about the absence of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.
CSPI's complaint concerns Polaner's All Fruit Spreads, Earth's Best Baby Foods, Healthy Times Oatmeal with Banana Cereal, Van's Organic Waffles, Spectrum Canola Oil, Bearitos Tortilla Chips, and Erewhon Wheat Flakes. CSPI is not concerned about the quality or safety of the products, but charges that their labels violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and FDA's guidance about labeling foods for GE content. Some examples include:
* Earth's Best Apples and Apricots baby food implies that it is superior to competing, similar products by stating at least seven different times on the package that it contains "NO GMO's" (genetically modified organisms). Although technically accurate, that claim is misleading because no baby food contains "organisms," and no brand of apples and apricot baby foods, not just Earth's Best, contains GE ingredients.
* Erewhon Wheat Flakes implies that it is superior to competing products by stating that it is "100% Natural" and does not contain "Genetically Engineered Ingredients." In fact, no GE wheat is present in any food.
* Polaner's All Fruit Strawberry states that it is "NOW GMO FREE," yet this jam-like product made primarily with strawberries and fruit juices does not, and never did, contain "organisms."
"Consumers want information about GE ingredients in their foods, but that information should be presented in an accurate and non-disparaging manner," said Gregory Jaffe, co-director of CSPI's Biotechnology Project. "These labels bear false or misleading statements such as 'No GMO's' that take unfair advantage of consumer concerns and lack of knowledge about GE crops. The labels imply that the absence of GE ingredients makes the products superior, when that is not the case."
The FDA, the American Medical Association, and many other health organizations have determined that GE crops are as safe to eat as traditionally bred crops. In fact, traditionally bred crops may be treated with more pesticides, or more dangerous pesticides than their bioengineered counterparts.
"Although CSPI favors labeling of GE ingredients, these seven products show that manufacturers are taking advantage of consumers with false and misleading label statements," added Jaffe.
CSPI recently conducted a national opinion poll that found that labels stating "GE"or "non-GE" would influence many consumers' perceptions and preferences. About 31% of consumers said that products labeled GE were not as safe as non-GE foods. A similar percentage said that foods labeled "does not contain genetically engineered ingredients" were better than unlabeled foods. Only about 10% said that the GE-labeled product was safer or better. (33% to 42% said that GE and non-GE foods were just as safe or good). Given many consumers' innate skepticism of any new technology, CSPI said that manufacturers must be careful not to mislead consumers. "FDA needs to send a clear message to manufacturers that label statements need to be both accurate and not imply superiority," added Jaffe. Anticipating the day when biotechnology is used to provide consumer benefits, CSPI's letter also urged the FDA to guard against deceptive claims about such benefits. "The FDA should nip this growing problem in the bud."
Labelling Rules to Lift GM Food Cost
- Brendan Pearson, Financial Review, July 19, 2000
Food production costs could rise by between 6 per cent and 17 per cent under a tough new labelling regime for genetically modified food, according to a European Union study released yesterday. The findings are in a new study, The Economic Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops on the Agri-food Sector released by the European Commission's Agriculture directorate.
The report's release comes before a decision by Federal, State and New Zealand health ministers in Wellington next week on the design of mandatory labelling rules for GM food products. Initial health ministers' proposals for a zero tolerance approach - supported by consumer groups and the Australian Medical Association - have drawn fire from the Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, who has warned such a regime would provide unacceptable costs on farm and industry groups.
Mr Howard has suggested that 1 per cent of GM trace elements be permitted before a food product must be labelled as a GM product. A consultant's report prepared for health ministers also warned that a stringent labelling regime could reduce key Australian food exports by up to 20 per cent. Warning of the "considerable risk" posed to our major export commodities produced with the aid of GM processes, the KPMG study cautioned there could be "a reduction in the value of certain exports by as much as 20 per cent - in the case of the dairy industry across both countries this could be up to $1.5 billion".
Meanwhile, the EU study found that although data on profitability of GM crops remained mixed, it was clear that they allowed for "greater flexibility in growing practices and for reduced, or more flexible labour requirements".
"This convenience effect should translate into increased labour productivity and savings in crop-specific labour costs," the EU report said. But the president of the National Farmers' Federation, Mr Ian Donges, told a NSW farm conference yesterday that consumer demand remained the main constraint of the adoption of the technology.
Food Gene Label Unneeded
- Editorial, Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2000
Genetically modified food has been on Americans' dining room tables for more than a decade. Virtually every kind of food in the supermarket from bread to cheese has had its genes altered one way or another. Now some members of Congress and, in California, state Sens. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) and Byron Sher (D-Stanford) want such food labeled. An organic farmer in Sonoma is trying to put a labeling initiative on a future California ballot.
The Food and Drug Administration already requires the labeling of genetically modified (GM) food that may differ in some way from its conventional counterpart. But regulators consider the vast majority of GM food no different from conventional food. Unless it is shown otherwise, labeling could be misleading.
Where the government has earned just criticism is in failing to generate public confidence in GM food. Consumers, independent scientists and even farmers have been excluded from the process of government testing and approval. To its credit, the FDA has made amends by holding hearings across the country, and the Department of Agriculture is bringing the public to its "arm's-length regulatory process." But unless it is found that GM food is any different in quality or safety from conventional food, adding a label would be misleading.
Biotechnology has revolutionized food processing. American consumers have known little, and cared little, about transplanted genes in much of their food, ranging from hamburger buns to catsup to cake mixes. So prevalent is such food today that eliminating it could have devastating consequences for farmers.
But what about consumer safety? The three agencies of the U.S. government that regulate the production and sale of GM products insist that tests and consumer use for over a decade show that GM food is safe. So far, no incidents of harm by approved GM food have been reported, but that is no reason for complacency. Testing by the agencies should continue to develop and improve the process as scientists raise new questions.
Under current FDA regulations, traditional and bioengineered foods are subject to the same labeling requirements. The labels must be truthful and must not mislead consumers. When ingredients such as artificial colors or preservatives are added to a food, they must be listed on the label. Labels need not note the presence of genetically modified ingredients. In bioengineered food, modification does not generally raise the same food safety concerns as the presence of chemical additives.
Labeling is required, and justified, only if the added or modified gene differs from its conventional counterpart in that it changes nutritional value or causes allergic reactions. The labeling proposals of Sens. Hayden and Sher would only confuse a simple process.
Labeling Biotechnology Foods and the Organic Lobby
Economic & Agricultural Trade 2000 (www.eat2k.org)
Summary: The history of food labeling in the United States has been to protect consumers from misleading statements and misbranding of foods that can result in fraudulent marketing schemes by unscrupulous retailers. U.S. regulations have not been based on a consumer's right to know, rather to provide nutritional and safety information and to protect consumers from misleading marketing of food products. Current labeling proposals, backed by organic food industry marketing interests fearful that cheaper biotechnology-improved crops will replace premium-priced organic produce, have the potential to add costs to food production, eliminate real consumer choice, and distort the intent of U.S. labeling protections against misleading advertising. Essentially, these proposals would create an food tax on all consumers to pay for the ethical and social concerns of various activist organizations and to support the sale of premium-priced products through the food scare marketing tactics of the $10 billion organic and na
>From the earliest of times, people have raised concerns over the quality and safety of their food. Labels were often used to tell the name of a food, but not much else and by early colonial times, regulation of food began to address such concerns. In 1862, President Lincoln appointed a chemist, Charles Wetherhill, to serve in the new Department of Agriculture. This was the beginning of the Bureau of Chemistry in the department, a predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (1). The FDA primarily engaged in agriculture research and development, but inevitably became involved in matters of food safety (2). In 1906, The Food and Drugs Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt. The law prohibited, among things, the manufacturing and interstate shipment of "misbranded" foods and drugs. The law also condemned any misleading statements or devices on a product's label, even if technically true (1). Labels were not required to state weight or measure, only content. If a
In 1938, a new act was introduced by the FDA, The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This act defined the information that was to be disclosed on food labels. It requires that a food be given a common or usual name, that the label disclose information that is material to representations made or suggested about the product as well as consequences that may arise from the use of the product, and that all labeling be truthful and not misleading. The act does not require disclosure in labeling of information solely on the basis of the consumer's desire to know (3,18).
By the 1990s, the FDA began to examine the safety and wholesomeness of foods developed through biotechnology. Biotechnology, which refers to the techniques that allow scientists to modify the genetic material of a living thing, or DNA, met its first regulation in the United States in 1990, for the use of a milk clotting enzyme that was used to curdle milk in cheese production (4,18). Two years later, in 1992, the FDA issued a policy statement clarifying its regulation of food developed through biotechnology. The statement said that foods developed through biotechnology must meet the same rigorous safety standards as required of all other foods. Products of biotechnology are subject to the same FDA labeling and policies applied to all foods in the U.S. Marketplace (5). Different labeling is required when, for example, the use of biotechnology results in a significant change in the composition of a food product. Labels are required on biotechnology products, as needed, to inform consumers of any potential hea
The FDA is able to evaluate the safety of biotech ingredients added to foods in the same way as it evaluates any new ingredient, such as a new preservative or food coloring agent. The FDA can also stop a food product from being sold at anytime if it determines that a product or ingredient is unsafe for public consumption or if it is mislabeled (5).
Many groups have spoken out in support of regulating biotechnology under the current FDA labeling and safety regimes. Scientific and public interest groups such as The American Council on Science and Health, Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, and Institute for Food Technologists, as well as trade associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and the Alliance for Better Foods, representing well-known food suppliers and retailers such as General Mills, Land O Lakes and Johnson & Johnson, feel that biotechnology helps to produce foods that promote greater nutrition, less reliance on chemical pesticides and could go far in combating hunger (10). Such groups view the FDA policy on labeling as sound. The policy recognizes the rights on the consumer to a safe food supply and allows to consumer to choose the foods they want (7) all the while protecting consumers and responsible food retailers from labels being used as part of misleading and costly marketing campaigns relating to food
Other advocates, such as nutritionists, dietitians and farmers, see biotechnology as an enabling technology that could have environmental and consumer benefits. Biotechnology improved crops considerably reduces the need for chemical inputs. Such reductions could save the feedstock and energy used in their manufacturing, the ingredients used for their formulation, and fuel used for distribution and application (18).
However, organizations, principally supporting organic food consumption and sales, hold a different stake in the issue of biotechnology and labeling. Their concern is best summed up by Promar marketing director Katy Hamilton in her remarks to the 1999 Organic Food Conference, where she noted, "the potential to develop the organic market would be limited if consumers are satisfied with food safety and the furor over genetic modification dies down." She further noted that "farmers might as well stick to conventional farming methods than switch to organic, if the perceived threats to safe food production are removed." (25)
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and the International Agriculture and Trade Policy organization (IATP), for example, are advocacy organizations that promotes organic farming and organic food consumption. The IATP and OCA want labeling, and an eventual ban, on all genetically modified foods and crops (9). Such labeling would help to market alternative organic crops to consumers as "safer" foods and support growth in the organic and natural products industry, which was recently experiencing a significant downturn in growth. Analysts who track this industry noted a "free fall" loss of some 31 percent in the Natural Business Composite Index (NBCI)in 1998 prior to a 1999 rebound coinciding with the biotech food scare campaign. (26)
By far, the biggest issues for regulators and legislators looking at biotechnology and labeling are how to respond to organic industry and activist group lobbying and pressure campaigns. Groups, such as OCA, IATP and Greenpeace, supported by organic industry interests and funding, state that genetically modified foods and crops pose risks to the environment that are "potentially irreversible and uncontrollable" and claim biotechnology will create an "ecological menace" that could threaten the nation's food supply (11,12). Public relations support to this campaign is being provided by Fenton Communication's Environmental Media Services, whose industry clients include some of the largest organic and natural products companies in the United States. Fenton's group is best known for generating the now debunked "60 Minutes" Alar food scare, resulting in increased sales in organic produce and a loss of tens of millions of dollars to conventional growers. David Fenton, put the Alar scare-strategy in context in a 19
These groups are now demanding that the FDA require mandatory labeling on all genetically modified foods which, in their view, would be a step toward banning the technology. They also want the FDA to tighten the approval process for all biotech crops. They claim, the FDA policy allows conventional and biotechnology food manufacturers too much discretion in determining the safety of new products before marketing them (6,12). Greenpeace and other activists, with the support of organic industry interest organizations, have staged demonstrations opposing "frankenfoods" throughout the world. Demonstrations by Greenpeace and others were held at recent FDA public hearings on biotechnology, WTO meetings in Seattle and during the U.N. Biosafety Protocol meetings in Montreal. (12).
Conversely, these same organic advocates have fought legislation providing for stricter regulations for organically produced foods and have opposed tighter labeling requirements for organic exports. In the United Kingdom, organic advocates -- citing the demand for consumer choice -- successfully lobbied to implement restrictive labeling for biotechnology derived foods, resulting in a de facto ban on these foods. Yet these very same advocates opposed instituting food safety standards and more restrictive labels for organic foods in Europe as "perpetuating the conflict of interests in the industry by giving too much weight to consumers." (21) In the United States, organic advocates, using such arguments as free trade and "subst antial equivalence" (which they oppose when applied to biotechnology derived foods), fought international food safety regulators in 1996 from imposing stricter labeling and testing requirements for U.S. organic exports that would be costly to their industry even though the U.S. Departm
The Pure Food Campaign, The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods (both run by organic industry lobbyists), and legislation such as the California Right to Know Initiative and Congressional legislation sponsored by Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), have also sprung up demanding the mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. The purpose of such legislation and campaigns is represented as "the consumer right to know." Without such labeling, they stress, there would be no way for a consumer to know which foods they purchase are genetically modified thereby placing the consumer in "danger" (6,16).
Several of these groups, The Campaign to Label Genetically Modified Foods (run by organic food industry representative Craig Winters) for example, whose legislation is being pushed by Congressman Kucinich, have expressed that their aim is an actual ban on biotechnology-improved products achieved through restrictive labeling. Kucinich, a self-proclaimed organic consumer and advocate, expressed that sentiment during a public hearing during the Seattle WTO when asked why not simply legislate a ban on biotechnology crops, "I think if we were to come out immediately and say they should be banned, I'm not quite sure if we could get the kind of constituency moving forward at this moment on that issue. I think the issue of labeling could achieve that in the short-term." Kucinich added, "If there is resistance [to his labeling proposal]... it's quite possible that we'll just pass up the issue of labeling and go right for the ban." (20)
Opposition by activists has heightened the issue in Europe and in other areas. In England, regulators, as a way of responding to activist demands, have instituted mandatory labeling laws and sparked a stampede by food producers and restaurants to rid their products of all genetically modified ingredients so they wouldn't have to place a warning label on their products (15). The Wall Street Journal has reported that this system has "confused consumers" and "spawned a bewildering array of marketing claims, counterclaims and outright contradictions that only a food scientist possibly could unravel." All the while, organic sales and food costs in the U.K. have skyrocketed. (24)
Similar, but less restrictive laws have also been instituted in Japan and will take effect in 2001 (6). In Canada, the policy on labeling has remained similar to that of the United States, despite the work of several activist organizations calling for mandatory labeling of all genetically modified foods on the grounds that a lack of labeling was a denial of the right to freedom of choice (18).
Another issue facing biotechnology are fears raised regarding food safety and long-term health effects. While there are risks associated with all foods, including those genetically modified, that must be properly assessed and managed, the vast balance of expert scientific opinion shows there is little evidence that these risks are due to genetic manipulation itself or that genetically modified foods are any more dangerous than conventional foods. In addition, current food safety and labeling requirement provide consumer information and protection in these areas (18).
For the consumer, there can be potential costs associated with new labeling regimes. Consumers are, for the most part, not fearful of genetically modified foods. As an October 1999 survey conducted for the International Food Information Council (IFIC) points out, two out of three consumers support foods produced through biotechnology and place a great deal of confidence in the benefits of, and current regulatory climate for, agricultural biotechnology (13). Letting a consumer know through a label they are purchasing a product that has been genetically modified or contains genetically modified ingredients may lead to some confusion over what they are actually buying. Additionally, by requiring labeling all genetically modified foods, production costs will have to rise for the farmer and food producer (14). To compensate, the costs will be passed on to the consumer in higher prices.
In turn, there are potential costs to the food chain. The world's population is expected to double in the next 30 years, resulting in an increased demand for food that is cheaper, more nutritious, safer and produced on less land with fewer chemicals in a more environmentally sensitive manner (8). Mandatory labeling would raise costs, which discourages producers and consumers, and could destroy markets for new products (14). A study conducted by the accounting firm KPMG for the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Council (ANZFSC) concluded that European-style labeling, similar to that proposed by Congressman Kucinich in the United States, would cost their consumers some $4.75 billion in the first year of implementation alone. According to figures from Consumers Report and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conversion to organic purchases would increase annual grocery bills by more than $4,000 a year to the average family of four.
The issue of biotechnology and labeling is turning out to be one of the most publicized and controversial issues facing the FDA many years. The challenge in the months ahead remains twofold for those in the food, agriculture and biotechnology sectors: confront the movement by organic industry and activist groups demanding mandatory labeling while trying to win acceptance in foreign countries for exports (17). Although opponents of biotechnology continue in their attempts to raise public fear, biotechnology remains a technology that offers remarkable innovations and provide tools for growth and development (8).
1. Food and Drug Administration. "Milestones in U.S. Food and Drug Law History." (FDA Backgrounder). <http://www.fda.gov>
2. Food and Drug Administration. "1906 Food and Drugs Act." FDA Consumer Information, June 1981.
3. Food and Drug Administration, "1938-The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act." FDA Consumer Information, June 1981.
4. Food and Drug Administration. "Biotechnology of Food". (FDA Backgrounder). <http://www.fda.gov>
5. Alliance for Better Foods. "Food Product Labeling Information." <http://www.betterfoods.org>
6. Alliance for Better Foods. "Biotechnology and Food."(Backgrounder). <http://www.betterfoods.org>www.betterfoods.org
7. Grocery Manufacturers of America. "GMA: As Hearings Conclude, FDA Biotech Policy Should Remain Science-Based." (Press Release) December 13, 1999. <http://www.gmabrands.com>
8. Bond, Senator Christopher. "Senator Bond releases Letter of Support from Scientific Community urging need for Biotech." (Press Release) <<http://bond.senate.gov>http://bond.senate.gov.
9. Organic Consumers Association. "Why Labeling?" October 14, 1999. <http://www.organicconsumers.org>
10. Podger, Pamela. "Organic Farmer wants labels on Altered Products." The San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 1999.
11. Barboza, David. "2 Sides Square off on Genetically Altered Food." The New York Times, November 19, 1999.
12. Krieger, Lisa. "Activists Pressure Federal Officials to Label Genetically-Altered Foods." San Jose Mercury News, December 14, 1999.
13. International Food Information Council. "Americans Remain Positive on Food Biotechnology". (Backgrounder), October 1999.
14. Miller, Henry. "Genetic Engineering: A Rational Approach to Labeling Biotech Foods." Science Magazine, May 28, 1999.
15. Miller, Henry. "Food Label Follies." Forbes, December 27, 1999.
16. Seyfer, Jessie. "Protesters, Scientists propose labels for genetically modified foods." Associated Press, December 14, 1999.
17. Lambrecht, Bill. "Analysts ponder how a merger may affect focus on Biotechnology." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 21, 1999.
18. Dewar, Arthur. Labeling of GM Foods (Agrow Reports Industry Alert). PJB Publications, November 1999.
19. The Evening Post (Wellington), Shoppers hungry for quality information, November 11, 1999.
20. "Science, Government, Religious World Leaders" Discuss Future of Genetically Modified Foods, Seattle, December 1, 1999, <<http://www.tappedintotheearth.com/html/wtoconf.html>
21. Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, the organic farming body as quoted in The Financial Times (London), September 3, 1997, pg 2, Organic lobby attacks food safety plans
22. Codex Organic Labeling Could Dampen Exporters' Enthusiasm, The Organic Times, September 1996, <<http://www.nfm-online.com/OT/Sep_96/ot_codex.html>
23. Bodensteiner, Carol A, Predicting public and media attention span for social issues, Public Relations Quarterly, June 22, 1995, Pg. 14; and, Arrest that apple, The Washington Times, September 13 1998, Pg B2.
24. Stecklow, Steve,`GENETICALLY MODIFIED' LABEL CONFUSES UK SHOPPERS, The Wall Street Journal, Oct 27, 1999
25. Watson , Joe, Fear organic boom may be short-term, Aberdeen Press and Journal, February 26, 1999 Pg.19
26. Pfeifer, Ellen, Healthy Living Sector Turns Around, Adams, Harness & Hill's Winslow Environmental News, JULY 1999
Industry Position on Labels
Labeling of ingredients for foods derived from biotechnology-improved crops would not affect the ag biotech industry any differently than any other technology innovator.
For these positions, it may be helpful for your to visit the technology and food industry organization web sites:
As well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration web site:
Other consumer web sites commenting on ensuring consumer protections with
regards to food labels include:
Majority Of Consumers Sees No Need For Labeling Foods With Biotech Ingredients
- Natalie Pargas, Food Labeling News, August 25 1999
U.S. consumers generally favor the use of biotechnology in foods as long as they benefit from its use, but they react negatively to the terminology "genetically modified organism" (GMO), Sylvia Rowe of the International Food Information Council told a symposium on biotechnology at last month's Institute of Food Technologists' meeting in Chicago.
An IFIC survey conducted in March of this year found that 75% of those surveyed expected biotechnology to provide benefits for themselves or their family in the next five years; 62% said it was likely they would purchase biotechnology products; 78% said they support FDA's approach to labeling of biotechnology products, and only 33% were aware that there are biotechnology products on the market today, Rowe said.
While consumers do not necessarily want biotechnology information on a label, they want to have access to the information, such as through a toll-free number or a Web site, she said.
When the consumer activist position calling for labeling of biotech foods was explained to those surveyed, there was some erosion in support for FDA's position, Rowe said, but 60% of those surveyed still favored the FDA position.
Consumers understand biotechnology, but they do not like the terms " genetically engineered animals" or "transgenic animals," she said. GMO is the very worst term, she added. Surveys in Canada and Asia have also found that GMO has a negative connotation for consumers, Rowe said. For French Canadians, she said, GMO is very close to the word for "manipulate." Consumers are also more supportive of animal-to-animal or plant-to-plant enhancement, and express more concern about animal to plant gene movement or movement between different species of plants or animals. A survey conducted by Canadian organizations in April of this year found similar attitudes among Canadian consumers, Rowe said. Consumers want simple label messages, and only to indicate product improvements. Like their U.S. counterparts, Canadian consumers felt they could rely on the regulatory approval process to assure safety of the foods, she said. Similarly, they wanted to have information on foods from biotechnology available to them, just not o
The Canadian consumers found most of the labels proposed in other parts of the world were not understandable, she said. Canadian consumers were also unenthusiastic about "may contain" labeling. Rowe spelled out communication tenets for foods from biotechnology:
* Explain the benefit of each product; * Place the product in the context of agricultural practices, with an emphasis on the farmers who plant the seed; * Provide an accurate, rather than absolute, view of food safety, making clear what risks there are, if there are any, and how safety determinations have been reached;
* Emphasize the years of research that went in to the development of each specific product (not just the field as a whole); * Underscore that FDA's labeling policy requires labeling if there are changes to the food because consumers need to be informed of those changes;
* Make government and industry communications consistent; * Stress that consumer group activism does not necessarily reflect consumer attitudes, and that there are many consumer g