By Shunning the Word “Non-GMO,” FDA’s Labeling Guidance Ignores Widespread Use

December 4, 2015

“The GMO labeling guidance that the FDA recently finalized is outdated, inaccurate, and confusing,” says the Non-GMO Project's executive director.

FDA’s recently released final guidance for labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food misses the mark by discouraging use of the term non-GMO-a term already common in the market, says third-party non-GMO certifier the Non-GMO Project (Bellingham, WA.)

“The GMO labeling guidance that the FDA recently finalized is outdated, inaccurate, and confusing,” says the group’s executive director Megan Westgate. “The primary purpose of labeling guidance should be to ensure that labels are clear and understandable to American consumers, but the new guidance discourages the overwhelmingly popular term non-GMO in favor of archaic phrases like ‘not bioengineered.’”

FDA states several reasons for avoiding the word non-GMO. First, the guidance says, a claim of “non” or “free” of GMOs that “conveys zero or total absence” is difficult to substantiate “unless a regulatory definition has been put in place in a specific situation.” No U.S. government labeling program, including the USDA’s National Organic Program, currently sets a numeric threshold for GMO content, as Nutritional Outlook reported earlier this year. (That article also pointed out: “By contrast, the Non-GMO Project abides by the same 0.9% GMO-content threshold that many global regulators do for human food, ingredients, supplements, and personal care products. The European Union’s mandatory GMO-labeling law, for instance, also uses the 0.9% threshold to denote GMO presence.”)

FDA’s guidance also takes issue with the “O” in the acronym “GMO":

Most foods do not contain entire organisms (foods such as yogurt that contain microorganisms are exceptions); however, in some formulations this acronym may be read as meaning that the food was not derived from a genetically engineered organism, such as a plant that has been genetically engineered. In light of potential confusion regarding the meaning of the acronym ‘GMO,’ FDA encourages manufacturers to consider the use of other types of statements to indicate that a plant-derived food has not been produced using bioengineering.

The agency also does not like the term “not genetically modified” because it says that some traditional methods such as selective breeding or plant hybridization could be considered modification.

FDA instead encourages use of words like “not bioengineered” or “not genetically engineered.”

But Westgate says this ignores the fact that many Americans already use the term non-GMO.

“In 2015, there are tens of thousands of retail products bearing non-GMO labels, and ‘GMO’ is overwhelmingly the most common way to refer to the products of genetic engineering,” she says.

“It is irresponsible and misguided for the FDA to finalize the document without opening a new round of public comment and making an effort to get in step with the current marketplace,” she adds.

FDA’s guidance notes that the agency does not intend to punish a company for using the term “non-GMO”:

However, FDA does not intend to take enforcement action against a label using the acronym “GMO” in a statement indicating that the product (or an ingredient) was not produced through the use of modern biotechnology, as long as the food is, in fact, not derived from a genetically engineered plant and the food’s labeling is not otherwise false or misleading, as further discussed in this guidance. Similarly, we do not intend to take enforcement action against a label using the acronym “GMO” in a statement indicating that the product (or an ingredient) was produced through the use of modern biotechnology, as long as the statement was true and the food’s labeling is not otherwise false or misleading.

Westgate's response? “Although the FDA states it will not pursue action against the GMO acronym in the marketplace, it is ridiculous to have labeling guidance that encourages the use of terminology that the American public won’t recognize or understand.”

 

Jennifer Grebow
Editor-in-Chief
Nutritional Outlook magazine
jennifer.grebow@ubm.com