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California Rejects GMO Labeling: What’s Next for GMOs on Food Labels?

On Nov. 6, California voters defeated Proposition 37 (53.1% to 46.9%), “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” requiring label disclosure of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If passed, the proposition would have prohibited GMO food and other processed food from being labeled “natural.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 1992 policy (57FR22984) and 2001 guidance document provides the agency’s thinking on scientific, regulatory, and safety issues related to bioengineered foods. The guidance states: there is “no basis for concluding that bioengineered 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.”

The FDA says a simple statement such as “GMO-free” is not generally allowed on a food label because it implies that the absence of bioengineering makes a product safer or superior to comparable products; the “GMO-free” statement without qualification would be construed as untruthful and misleading.

However, Prop 37 supporters believe that consumers have a right to know if foods they purchase are genetic engineered, a process they maintain often produces unintended adverse health or environmental consequences. They point out that 50 countries—nearly 40% of the world’s population—already have the ability to read a food label and know if it contains GMOs.

Opponents disagree. They say the proposition is not supported by scientific evidence, would cost families more, create fear and confusion, and attempt to define “natural” in a way that is inconsistent with safe and accepted manufacturing practices (for example, foods that been cooked, frozen, milled, or dried would no longer qualify as “natural”).

What’s next?

Now that Prop 37 has been defeated, here are some considerations for food manufacturers for labeling:

  • Hope for a federal standard. Chaos ensues when multiple jurisdictions issue regulations on the same topic. What is a national manufacturer to do? Just look to restaurant menu labeling to understand the benefits that come when a single, unified federal standard is proposed with industry’s support.
  • Look to the rBST precedent for “GMO-free” foods. Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST)—a genetically engineered growth hormone—is injected into cows, which then produce 10–15% more milk. Food labelers interested in marketing the “GMO-free” nature of their foods may want to examine the label requirements for rBST-free. Note that the FDA accepts an rBST-free claim provided there is an accompanying referral statement: “FDA states no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST treated cows and non-rBST treated cows.”
  • Leverage organics. Consumers are not always aware that organic foods are by definition GMO-free. As food labelers seek to address consumers’ needs, I envision that organic labeling will increase in popularity, especially if the public is educated about organics regulations.
  • Be cautious about “natural.” Prop 37 points to the continued spotlight on use of the “natural” claim, with litigators poised to scrutinize the nuances. Companies are becoming more conservative with its use in an effort to steer clear of the controversy.

Karen DuesterKaren C. Duester
Food Consulting Company

One Response

  1. Food prices have risen faster in recent years than ever before. As many of us are feeling the pinch, it is time to reevaluate some of our food purchases. The term “organic” has been thrown around in the shopping aisles like sprinkles on the jelly donut you’re trying to avoid. It seems like hundreds of new “organic” products have emerged, all with a price tag about 30% higher than the regular option. Is it really worth the extra money, or are we all being duped with a clever marketing campaign to get us to buy essentially the same thing for a lot more? ”

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