Last week, Maine became the second state to approve legislation mandating that foods made using ingredients from modern biotech crop varieties be conspicuously labeled "Produced with Genetic Engineering." Like the first state, Connecticut, the labeling mandate will not come into effect until more states have adopted similar measures.
Also last week, a consortium of major food companies issued a draft bill that would preempt such state-mandated labeling requirements, but permit food companies to voluntarily disclose that their products contained no ingredients from genetically modified crops. I basically agree with the reaction of Elizabeth Whelan, head of the American Council on Science and Health to the proposal:
"Of course, GMO-containing (biotech) foods are not a health threat to anyone, but that is merely a scientific position, based on technology and 17+ years experience of millions of consumers eating these products without any trace or suggestion of harm. Those opposed to biotechnology are either reacting out of superstition and baseless fears, or are beholden to the organic food industry, which is now a behemoth, but they have succeeded in fomenting consumer and corporate concerns. All parties should be happy with this new idea, consolidating the labelling issue. I would prefer if those who choose to market non-GMO products just went ahead and labelled their own items and left the rest of us alone."
Specifically, the proposed bill…
…would allow manufacturers to voluntarily make claims about the absence of bioengineered ingredients if the manufacturer has in place a traceability program to ensure bioengineered food is not commingled with the non-bioengineered food at any stage of production from farm to retail, while making allowances for unavoidable, inadvertent cross contact with bioengineered foods. The claim could be made on dairy products derived from cows and other milk-producing animals that consumed feed or a feed ingredient or received a drug or biological product that was developed through biotechnology and has been authorized for such use by the Secretary. The claim may also be made on a food produced with a bioengineered processing aid or enzyme. To avoid misleading consumers, claims regarding bioengineering would not be permitted to state or imply that a food is more or less safe solely because of the use or absence of bioengineered food. The provision would also authorize FDA to develop regulations for the voluntary labeling of the presence of bioengineered ingredients in food products. As under the mandatory notification program, FDA would have the authority to mandate special labeling to address any material difference that could affect health and safety or cause consumer deception. The regulations under this section shall not prevent a person from a) disclosing voluntarily on the labeling of bioengineered food the manner in which the food has been modified to express traits or characteristics that differ from its comparable marketed food or 2) from disclosing advertisements, on the internet, in response to consumer inquiries, or on other communications that food is or contains an ingredient derived through the use of biotechnology.
I want to highlight an especially critical aspect of the proposal: To avoid misleading consumers, claims regarding bioengineering would not be permitted to state or imply that a food is more or less safe solely because of the use or absence of bioengineered food.
Although allowing non-GMO growers and food sellers to label their products as such will likely mislead consumers into paying more for products that are no better than foods using ingredients from conventional or biotech crops, the draft proposal is a sensible compromise.