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Labeling Transgenic Foods

    Whether or not to require labeling of genetically engineered foods is likely to be the hot topic in food biotechnology over the next year. The European Union plans to establish a "farm to fork" tracking system that would mandate labeling for foods that contain transgenic ingredients and also for foods such as oils that do not contain transgenic DNA or protein but are derived from transgenic materials. Polls consistently show consumer support for such labeling. A 2001 British survey found that 80 percent of consumers even wanted labels on meat from animals that were raised on transgenic feed (http://www.meatnews.com/index.cfm?
    ). The United States government opposes application of the EU standards to U.S. exports and the U.S. system for handling and processing farm products is not currently adapted to segregate transgenic and conventional products.

    Wheat harvest in Colorado
    Photo: USDA

    Current U.S. policy
    The Food and Drug Administration currently requires labeling of genetically engineered foods only if the food has a significantly different nutritional property, or if a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present. Early in 2001, the FDA proposed voluntary guidelines for labeling food that does or does not contain genetically engineered ingredients (see table). The FDA is still accepting public comment on these guidelines (http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/biolabgu.html).

    Examples of voluntary labeling under proposed FDA guidelines

    Wording on label FDA comment
    GMO free;
    Not genetically modified
    Not recommended. "Free" implies zero content, which is nearly impossible to verify. "Genetically modified" is an inappropriate term, in that all crop varieties have been modified by plant breeders.
    We do not use ingredients produced using biotechnology. OK
    This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered. OK
    This cantaloupe was not genetically engineered. May be misleading, because it implies that other cantaloupes may be genetically engineered. Currently, there are no such varieties on the market.
    Genetically engineered OK
    This product contains cornmeal that was produced using biotechnology. OK
    This product contains high oleic acid soybean oil from soybeans developed using biotechnology to decrease the amount of saturated fat. OK. The underlined part is mandatory because it indicates a nutritional change. The rest is voluntary under the proposed guidelines.

    Issues in mandatory labeling
    Although mandatory labeling of GE ingredients may appear to be a straightforward measure, there are several complex issues that would have to be resolved prior to implementation.

    What specific technologies for crop variety development would require a label?
    The target of most labeling efforts is food products that have been genetically engineered, that is, they contain genes artificially inserted from another organism. However, some legislative efforts have defined the term "genetically modified" more broadly to include an array of techniques that were in use by plant breeders well before the GE era.

    What percentage of a GE ingredient must be present in a food before a label is required?
    One percent is a figure that is commonly proposed, but figures ranging from 0.1 to 5% have also been suggested.

    Would meat and dairy products derived from livestock fed transgenic crops require a label?
    Some labeling proposals include these products among those that would require labels, yet the biological rationale for doing so has not been demonstrated, that is, DNA or protein from inserted genes have not been found in livestock products.

    What is the economic impact of labeling?
    The cost of labeling involves far more than the paper and ink to print the label. Accurate labeling would require an extensive identity preservation system from farmer to elevator to grain processor to food manufacturer to retailer (Maltsbarger and Kalaitzandonakes, 2000. AgBio Forum, http://www.agbioforum.org/, Vol. 3, No. 4). Testing would have to be done at various steps along the food supply chain. A recent study commissioned by the Canadian government estimated mandatory labeling would require a 10% increase in food prices. This would mean, for example, that a package of tortillas costing $1.50 would increase to $1.65.

    Pro-labeling arguments
  • Consumers have a right to know what's in their food, especially concerning products for which health and environmental concerns have been raised.
  • Surveys have indicated that a majority of Americans support mandatory labeling.
  • To date, 22 countries have announced plans to institute some form of mandatory labeling (Phillips and McNeill, 2000. AgBio Forum, http://www.agbioforum.org/, Vol. 3, no. 4). The U.S. could follow their lead in handling the logistics of product separation.
  • For religious or ethical reasons many Americans want to avoid eating animal products, including animal DNA.
  • Photo: USDA


    Anti-labeling arguments
  • Labels on GE food imply a warning about health effects, whereas no significant differences between GE and conventional foods have been detected. If a nutritional or allergenic difference were found in a GE food, current FDA regulations require a label to that effect.
  • Labeling of GE foods to fulfill the desires of some consumers would impose a cost on all consumers. Persons at lower income levels would be the most affected.

    Photo: USDA

  • Consumers who want to buy non-GE food already have an option: to purchase certified organic foods, which by definition cannot include GE ingredients above defined threshold levels.
  • The food system infrastructure (storage, processing, and transportation facilities) in this country could not currently accommodate the need for segregation of GE and non-GE products.
  • Consumers wanting to avoid animal products need not worry about GE food. No GE products currently on the market or under review contain animal genes.
  • Photo: USDA


    Additional information resources
    Food and Drug Administration
    Report on consumer focus groups on biotechnology. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~comm/biorpt.html.

    AgBio Forum
    Vol. 3, No. 4 is devoted to labeling of GE foods.

    The Center for Food Safety www.centerforfoodsafety.org/facts&issues/VoluntaryLabelingMemo.html
    Argues against voluntary labeling and in favor of mandatory labeling.

    This Food Contains GM Ingredients: Useful or Useless Info?
    From the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

    Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods
    A fact sheet from Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

    Database of GM labeling laws of different countries
    Maintained by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

    Testing services for GE crops and food
    Two types of testing are available to detect GE components in crops and food. Test strips are used for rapid, on-the-spot testing for the presence of specific transgenes. They are often used at grain elevators to check new grain arrivals. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a slower, more expensive technique that is conducted in a laboratory. A few sources of testing services are listed below. Inclusion of a company on this list should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the company or the product.

    Test strips
    South Dakota
    Phone: 800-661-4117

    Agdia Inc.
    30380 County Road 6
    Elkhart, Indiana 46514
    Phone: 219-264-2014; 800-622-4342
    Fax: 219-264-2153

    Strategic Diagnostics Inc.
    111 Pencader Drive
    Newark, Delaware 19702
    Phone: 800-544-8881

    PCR analysis
    STA Labs, Inc.
    630 S. Sunset St.
    Longmont, CO 80501
    Phone: 800-426-9124

    Genetic ID
    1760 Observatory Dr. #2NF1
    Fairfield, IA 52556-9030
    Phone: 641-472-9979
    Fax: 641-472-9198
    E-mail: info@genetic-id.com


Page last updated : March 11, 2004

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