GMA: GMO labeling should apply to highly refined oils, sweeteners

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

GMA: GMO labels should apply to highly refined oils, sweeteners

Related tags Agriculture

If consumers are to believe that the food industry is serious about transparency, highly refined oils and sweeteners derived from GM crops must be included in the new bioengineered food standard (the federal GMO labeling law), even if they are indistinguishable from their non-engineered counterparts, says the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

In comments​ filed with USDA, which recently invited public comment​ on how the new GMO labeling legislation - signed into law last year by President Obama - will work in practice, the GMA noted that many GM-corn-based sweeteners and GM- soy-based oils cannot be identified via analytical tests (given that bioengineered material is not always detectable in the final product).

But these ingredients should still be labeled​, it argued, given that 90% of US corn, soy and sugarbeet crops are bioengineered, and excluding highly refined ingredients derived from these crops from the GMO labeling law would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise:

“Excluding highly refined ingredients (HRI) from the scope of the mandatory disclosure standard would result in roughly 80% fewer products being disclosed under the federal law​. A determination that HRI are considered to be bioengineered foods would be consistent with reasonable consumer expectations. Consumer interest in bioengineered foods is based on a desire to understand how a crop was grown, not whether the food contains rDNA.   

“The national bioengineered food disclosure standard is a marketing standard and not a safety standard. As such, our support for mandatory HRI disclosure is grounded in our industry’s commitment to transparency and to building consumer trust in the use of bioengineered ingredients and foods.”

Including highly refined ingredients within the scope of the standard would also simplify compliance, claimed the GMA.

It will be more practical for manufacturers to comply with a standard based on traceability rather than testing for a number of reasons. As FDA has recognized in its final guidance to industry on voluntary labeling, it is difficult to differentiate through validated test methods between plant-derived foods developed through bioengineering vs. those developed using traditional breeding methods.”

Incidental additives, processing aids

However, incidental additives, including processing aids, that may be from a bioengineered source material, or fermentation products produced using bioengineered microorganisms such as vitamin B2 and B12, should not be included in the bioengineered food standard, as long as the microorganism is no longer present in the final ingredient or food, argued the GMA.

Similarly, said the GMA, foods and ingredients derived from animals, insects, or microorganisms which grow or feed on a bioengineered crop or ingredient directly derived from such a crop, should not be included in the bioengineered food standard.

(Examples of these products might be milk and eggs from animals that consumed bioengineered feed; honey from bees that may have fed on pollen from bioengineered plants; and fermentation products developed using a bioengineered substrate that is consumed during the fermentation process, such as alcohol, amino acids, enzymes, citric acid, and vinegar.)

Words, symbols, digital links

While the GMO labeling legislation requires mandatory disclosures on food labels, there will be some flexibility over the form they can take, and food companies will have the option of disclosing GMO ingredients via “text, symbol or digital link​.”

If they choose a symbol, however, said the GMA, it “should not be disparaging of biotechnology in any way,” ​and “should not expressly or by implication convey a ‘warning’ statement.”​ 

If companies choose text on their labels, the GMA suggested that USDA consider the following two options for the mandatory disclosure: ‘[This product contains] ingredients sourced from bioengineered crop(s) [or animals]… [This product contains] ingredients [that] may be sourced from bioengineered crop(s) [or animals].’

GMA also requested that USDA establish a ‘grandfathering’ provision that allows continued use of disclosure language compliant with the now defunct Vermont GMO labeling legislation, such as: ‘Partially/may be produced with genetic engineering.’

IMPORTED FOODS:  ​Imported foods and beverages should be subject to the same disclosure requirements as products manufactured in the US, says the GMA: “Unequal treatment under the disclosure law for domestic and imported products would lead to consumer confusion in the marketplace.”

Record keeping

As for record-keeping, for foods or ingredients from crops that are overwhelmingly produced using bioengineering in the country where they are grown (such as corn, canola, soy, and sugar beets grown in the US), USDA should “apply a presumption that the ingredient is a bioengineered food, unless the manufacturer can provide documentation showing that that this is not the case​,” said the GMA.

  • To read the GMA’s comments in full, click HERE. 
  • To see the questions USDA’s agricultural marketing service asked for comments on, click HERE​ (the comment period closed on August 25).
  • Read the TEXT​ of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law. 

The timetable for federal GMO labeling

USDA says it is aiming to publish a draft of its proposed federal GMO labeling rule by the end of the year​ (which will be subject to public comment) and says it is “working hard to meet the schedule in order to issue a final rule on the law in July 2018.”

Assuming the July 2018 deadline for establishing the bioengineered food standard is met, USDA has not yet given a compliance date by which manufacturers must start labeling their products, however.

USDA is currently reviewing a feasibility study from Deloitte exploring how electronic or digital disclosure (eg. via QR codes) might impact consumer access to the information about GMOs, and says that the study findings “will be used to draft the proposed rule, and therefore will be subject to comment as part of the overall proposed rule when it is published​.”

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