Inside the G.M.A.’s G.M.O. strategy

by Jay Sjverven
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The food industry has adopted a more proactive stance with regard to its use of bioengineered ingredients, also known as genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s). For several years, the industry seemed to be mired in a “whack-a-mole” strategy, affirming the safety of bioengineered food ingredients first in one state and then in another as anti-bioengineering activists mounted ballot initiatives and promoted legislation in state houses across the nation in an effort to remove the ingredients from the marketplace.

As 2014 began, it was evident industry was making adjustments in its approach with new strategies, including an effort to secure national legislation to establish federal ground rules for the marketing and voluntary labeling of bioengineered food products. Also, individual food manufacturers conceded increasing numbers of consumers preferred non-bioengineered products, and heeding those preferences, introduced verified non-bioengineered versions of iconic grain-based products, including Cheerios and Grape-Nuts.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and other food industry organizations were working together in crafting proposals for legislation they hope will find sponsors in Congress. The legislation would establish federal preeminence in overseeing the marketing and voluntary labeling of bioengineered foods and ingredients. The proposals were outlined in a draft discussion document that was obtained by Politico, which first reported on the effort in early January. The G.M.A. confirmed the authenticity of the document while indicating discussion and fine-tuning of the proposals were ongoing.

The draft document stated, “This legislation would create a uniform, national program governing the premarket review and labeling of genetically engineered foods. First, it would require the Food and Drug Administration to conduct a safety review of all new plant varieties used for genetically engineered food before those foods are introduced into commerce. Second, the legislation would create a new legal framework, subject to F.D.A. oversight, governing the use of claims regarding either the absence of, or use of, genetically engineered food or food ingredients. The legislation would also require F.D.A. to develop a federal definition for ‘natural’ claims on product labels. Given this new legal framework, states would be precluded from imposing any requirements that are not identical to these federal requirements.”

More specifically, the draft proposals indicated the food companies should be required to notify the F.D.A. about all new bioengineered foods four months before they are to be marketed to give the agency the time it needs to verify the foods are safe. The document noted currently such notification and consultation are voluntary, although most products go through the process. The proposal was to make the consultation process mandatory.

The draft document also outlined a legal framework for labeling. It 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 non-bioengineered food at any stage of production and distribution, from farm to retail, while making allowance for unavoidable, inadvertent cross contact with bioengineered foods.

The document said the non-bioengineered claim should be allowed in the case of dairy products derived from cows and other milk-producing animals that consumed food or a feed ingredient or received a drug or biological product that was developed through biotechnology and was approved for such use. The non-bioengineered claim also would apply to food produced with an approved bioengineered processing aid or enzyme.

The F.D.A. should be authorized to develop regulations for the voluntary labeling of the presence of bioengineered ingredients in food products, according to the document. The F.D.A. would have the authority to mandate special labeling to address any material difference of a bioengineered food from a traditional food that might affect health and safety or cause consumer deception.

The document also proposed Congress to direct the F.D.A. to develop a federal definition of the term “natural” for use on food packaging.

Dr. David Acheson, founder and chief executive officer of The Acheson Group, commented, “I think it is excellent that G.M.A. is proposing a process to establish a labeling approach that is uniform. Having 50 different ways of regulating G.M.O.s, should such regulation be left to the states, is both impractical and very costly to food companies, and thus to consumers.

“I also agree that mandating an F.D.A. review of all new G.M.O. plant-based foods is a good step to ensure public health and safety.”

Acheson suggested the effort to get the F.D.A. to develop a definition of “natural” was a long shot, though, given the agency’s previous “push back” on such proposals.
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