As the demand grows for more natural foods in our supermarkets and restaurants, so does the demand for better food labeling. But the ultimate accuracy of food labeling is a much more complicated problem than people might think.
Well.org asked Alison Van Eenennaam, head of the department of animal sciences for the University of California, Davis, to clarify a few points about food labeling – and yes, we asked her about the “DARK Act” too.
Well.Org: What’s the one thing the public should know when it comes to food labeling?
Eenennaam: Food and Drug Administration policy – under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act – already mandates food labeling when there is a material difference in the product.
Material facts have been interpreted by the FDA to mean changes in health or environmental safety posed by the product; statements that might mislead the consumer in light of other information on the label; or a food label that might cause a consumer to expect that the product closely resembles a food product from which it differs in one or more significant characteristics.
Well.Org: There are limitations for the FDA on labeling are there not? Can you explain the main ones?
Eenennaam: FDCA Section 403(a)(1) states that a food is misbranded if its labeling is untrue or misleading, while Section 201(n) states that a label is misleading if it fails to reveal “material facts” about a product. The FDA would require labels on products that demonstrably pose novel hazards that might affect safety or have significant unexpected differences in composition. These are material facts. In contrast, production and breeding methods like radiation mutagenesis or genetic engineering that create no material difference in products require no special labeling.
Well.Org: Is the “organic” or “non-GMO” label as it currently stands a good definition –either in how it’s applied or how it’s understood by the public?
Eenennaam: The FDA allows voluntary process-based labeling as long as it is not false or misleading.
In 2001, the FDA put out a draft guidance that set requirements for industry on acceptable language for voluntary labels on products not containing genetically engineered [GE] ingredients. The guidance stated that it is not possible to demonstrate a zero level of GE ingredients and therefore prohibits claims that a food is GE “free.” It also advised that “a label statement that expresses or implies that a food is superior because it is not bioengineered would be misleading” given the lack of evidence that GE foods are materially different than non-GE foods.
It was also considered that it would be misleading to label a food or ingredient as being non-GE, when in fact no commercialized GE varieties of that food or ingredient exist on the market.
Certified “organic” label means the product was raised in accordance with the National Organic Standards, which prohibit the intentional use of GE plants. It is therefore a production standard and does not guarantee any set purity level in the product about trace levels of GE content.
The Non-GMO Project verification requires documentation of absence of GMO ingredients in the supply chain. Non-GMO Project Verified is the fastest growing label in the natural products industry, representing $11 billion in annual sales and more than 27,000 verified products. There are many products labeled with the Non-GMO Project label where there are no commercialized varieties of that food or ingredients existing in the market.
Well.Org: What effect would the DARK Act have on consumers’ food? Is it more a continuation of current practices or would it lead in a different path?
Eenennaam: The FDA has stated that it has no basis for finding that GE foods “differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.” Therefore, since GE production methods create no material difference in products, no mandatory label is required for GE foods. In the two decades since this initial finding, the FDA has not encountered any evidence or data that have caused it to change its position despite having reviewed regulatory packages on well over one hundred GE events.
If a new GE process changed a product such that it differed significantly from its conventional counterpart, the FDA could require labeling for those specific qualities. For instance, since high omega-3 and high oleic vegetable oils differ significantly in composition from their conventional counterparts, the FDA could require that these oils be labeled – not because they were produced using GE, but because there is a material difference in the oil products.
The FDA could also require labeling for potential allergenicity if the food contained a novel allergen that a consumer would not expect to be present in a specific type of food. As an example, if a peanut protein was inserted into a tomato, the product would need to be labeled to warn individuals allergic to peanuts that the GE tomato may present an allergenic risk unless the developer could demonstrate that there was no allergy risk from that peanut gene. To date, no GE products have required such a specific label.