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?
fuseaction=Article&artNum=1821). 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
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
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
|This oil is made from soybeans that were
not genetically engineered.
|This cantaloupe was not genetically
||May be misleading, because it implies
that other cantaloupes may be genetically engineered.
Currently, there are no such varieties on the market.
|This product contains cornmeal that was
produced using biotechnology.
|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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
Additional information resources
Food and Drug Administration
Report on consumer focus groups on biotechnology. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~comm/biorpt.html.
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
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
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.
30380 County Road 6
Elkhart, Indiana 46514
Phone: 219-264-2014; 800-622-4342
Strategic Diagnostics Inc.
111 Pencader Drive
Newark, Delaware 19702
STA Labs, Inc.
630 S. Sunset St.
Longmont, CO 80501
1760 Observatory Dr. #2NF1
Fairfield, IA 52556-9030