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On November 4, 2014, the people of Oregon and Colorado voted for mandatory labelling of foods produced from genetically modified organisms (GMO). These initiatives from Maine, Connecticut, Vermont and subsequently Oregon and Colorado, speak of the public’s desire to know what they are eating, a mistrust of the industry and a lack of action from the federal government.

Federal Government Lack of Action and Industry Mistrust

Currently in the United States (US), there is no federal law that requires the labelling of GMO derived products, providing the product is not significantly different to the non-GMO product, or different in use, nutrition or includes an unexpected allergen. However, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has produced voluntary labelling guidance on GMO and Non-GMO1. While many companies have opted to label their products as Non-GMO there hasn’t been the same desire by the industry to label their products as GMO.

Unwanted events have caused the public to believe that the industry cannot be trusted and that the government is not doing everything it can to protect the public. One case involved a strain of GMO corn (Starlink) that was only approved for animal feed and fuel because it caused a reaction in people. Unfortunately, this strain of corn did end up in the food supply chain, causing the US price of corn to plummet on the world market and dozens of products to be recalled.

Another case involved the development of GMO wheat. This was a product that foreign markets had no desire for. Therefore, after field trials from 2000 to 2003, the company that created the GMO wheat dropped the project despite the US FDA completing its food safety consultation on it in 2004.

In 2013 this strain of GMO wheat was found growing in a field in Oregon. After an extensive review, the United States Department Agriculture (USDA) completed an investigation and published its findings on September 26, 20142. The USDA concluded that this was the same GMO wheat variety created by the aforementioned company, that it had not come from local field trials and that they were “unable to determine exactly how the GMO wheat came to grow in the farmer’s field”. On July 14, 2014, more GMO wheat was found growing in Montana. That investigation is still ongoing.

Oregon Mandatory Labelling of GMOs Initiative, Measure 92 (2014)3

One of the counties of Oregon, Jackson County, has banned GMO crops4. Oregon was one of the states involved in the unwanted GMO wheat event. Oregon has voted no to changing its existing law to require the labelling of raw and packaged foods produced entirely or partially by “genetic engineering”. This law would have required retailers to properly label raw product as “genetically engineered”. Manufacturers of pre-packaged foods would have had to place labels clearly and conspicuously stating “produced with genetic engineering” or “partially produced with genetic engineering” on the front or back of the package. These phrases did not have to be part of the product name, nor did the manufacturer have to identify which ingredient, or ingredients, are derived from genetic engineering. No company would have been subject to injunction, or fines, if the pre-packaged foods have less than 0.9% genetic engineered materials by the total weight of the package, or were unknowingly, or unintentionally, contaminated with genetically engineered material. For pre-packaged products, retailers would have been only responsible for their own-labelled products. This would not have applied to animal feed or food served in restaurants.

Colorado Right to Know Act - Prop 1055

A law proposed in Colorado but also not passed, dealt with labelling requirements for products derived from genetic modification. Had it been passed it would have been effective from July 1, 2016. Its main aim was that packaged and raw agriculture products derived from GM would have to have been labelled as “produced with genetic engineering”. The exemptions from the labelling requirements were:

  • Animal food or drink
  • Chewing gum
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Food containing one or more processing aids
  • Enzymes produced or derived from genetic engineering
  • Food in restaurants and food produced for immediate consumption not packaged for resale
  • Food from animals not derived from genetic engineering but fed feed or injected with a drug derived from genetic engineering
  • Medically prescribed food

Food would not have been considered misbranded if it had been produced by someone unaware that the seed or food was derived from genetic engineering, or that it was either unknowingly or unintentionally comingled with genetically engineered seed or food.

The Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA), a major US industry association that is against the individual state laws regarding GMO labelling, supports the HR 4432 Safe and Accurate Food labelling Act introduced by the House of Representatives’ Mike Pompeo and G.K. Butterfield6. This proposed law will not require products with GMO ingredients to be labelled as such, unless there are safety issues or substantial differences between them and the non-GMO ingredient, but it will set specific requirements for GMO free claims and require the US FDA to develop requirement for Natural claims. While this law was introduced into Congress in 11 April 2014 it still hasn’t progressed to the point that anyone believes that it will be signed into law anytime soon.

Vermont is still  the only state to have passed an unencumbered GMO law. Currently, the laws in Maine and Connecticut with their requirements still not met will not be enacted, at least at this time. The State of Vermont is being sued with the GMO labelling debate in the US still continuing even though the European Union (EU) has required labelling of GMOs since 1997. To date there are now more than 60 countries, as well as the EU, requiring labelling of GMOs.

For further information, please contact:

Jim Cook
Consumer Testing Services
Food Safety Technologist
SGS North America, Inc.
t: +1 973 461-1493

References:

1 FDA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
2 United States Department of Agriculture
3 Oregon Mandatory Labelling of GMOs Initiative, Measure 92 (2014)
4 The Washington Times
5 Colorado Right to Know Act - Prop 105
6 Congress.Gov