In the letter, the GMA said it plans to file a petition in early 2014 asking the FDA to issue a regulation that would authorize GMO foods to be labeled “natural,” citing strong interest from member companies, states and consumers.
The FDA has yet to finalize a 12-year-old draft guidance document outlining the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. The agency doesn’t currently object to the term “natural” being used on food labels, as long as it isn’t used in a misleading way and the product doesn’t contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.
“Because there is no material difference between foods derived from biotechnology and their traditional counterparts—and they do not differ in ‘any meaningful way’—foods derived from biotechnology may be labeled ‘natural’ if that term would be suitable for their traditional counterparts,” according to the GMA's letter . “There is nothing synthetic or artificial about foods derived from biotechnology as that term has been applied by the agency.”
The term, when used in conjunction with GMOs, has drawn the ire of consumer advocacy groups like the Organic Consumers Association, which petitioned the FDA to make it illegal to put a natural label on any foods containing GMOs. Katherine Paul, the OCA director of communications, said she isn't surprised that a billion-dollar lobbying group like the GMA is pushing for "natural" labels on GMO products.
“Earlier this year, more than 200 members of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility signed a statement declaring that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs," Paul told FoodNavigator-USA. "Yet the FDA continues to put consumers at risk by siding with industry. Fortunately, consumers are having a direct impact on the sales and brand images of manufacturers who continue to put GMO ingredients, unlabeled, into their products.
"As consumers continue to become more aware of food manufacturers' attempts to greenwash their products with misleading words like 'natural' on products that are anything but, we will ultimately force manufacturers, through our purchasing decisions, to either reformulate their products or label them honestly," she added.
The food industry has successfully prevented most major state and local GMO labeling initiatives from passage—most notably Washington State’s I-522 in support of front-of-pack GMO labeling, whose opposition was largely bankrolled by the GMA and five out-of-state corporations.
Still, as many as 26 states weighed GMO labeling initiatives this year. Moreover, some 65 class action lawsuits have been filed against food manufacturers over whether foods derived from biotech can be labeled natural, the GMA said.
EWG: Natural labeling on GE foods will cause more confusion
In a statement from the Environmental Working Group responding to the GMA’s letter, Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president of government affairs, said that consumers who buy foods labeled as natural expect them to be free of genetically engineered ingredients, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, adding that the FDA’s definition of “natural” is designed to ensure that no “artificial or synthetic” ingredients have been added to the food product.
“Unfortunately, food manufacturers routinely label foods as ‘natural’ when they are anything but. And now the food industry wants FDA to allow foods that have been engineered at the genetic level to be called ‘natural,’” Faber said. “This will only sow even more consumer confusion, leading shoppers to believe that products made with synthetic or genetically engineered ingredients are better for the environment even when they are not. Many foods that carry the ‘natural’ label were produced in ways that increase the use of toxic pesticides, misuse antibiotics or include growth hormones. In some cases, consumers are paying more for ‘natural’ products that are no better for the environment than other conventional choices.”
Faber added that in addition to stepping up enforcement of such misleading claims, the FDA should also require mandatory GE labeling on all products containing genetically engineered ingredients “so that consumers can make the best choices for their families.”