A Washington, D.C., think tank has filed an 11-page citizen petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the term "non-GMO" from food products and consumer goods.
The petition from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) asserts such labeling claims, especially the Non-GMO Project's butterfly logo, imply products certified as non-GMO are healthier than those containing bioengineered or GMO ingredients and are therefore "false and misleading" and constitute misbranding under the law.
In response, the Non-GMO Project called ITIF a "biotech-backed" group and said its petition is based on errors and misrepresentations. "While it’s not surprising that this organization opposes the public’s right to know whether or not their food contains G.M.O.s, the petition is factually inaccurate and fundamentally biased. We do not expect the petition to gain traction with the F.D.A," the group said in a statement quoted by Food Business News.
It's hard to tell what will come of this petition, but the approach and the timing are interesting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to issue its final rule governing the federally mandated GMO labeling of food products sometime this year. Chances are the USDA's final rule will require the term "bioengineered food" and the letters "BE" to be included on labels rather than "genetically modified" or "GMO." The ITIF seems to be working the other side of the issue by trying to get the FDA to ban the use of the term "non-GMO."
According to attorneys interviewed by Food Navigator, the petition's chances of success are slim because non-GMO labeling claims are supported by industry and also by the First Amendment. Even if the FDA were to go along with prohibiting the term "non-GMO" on food labels, "... a legally enforceable ban or prohibition on this or any claim would require at least a change in the regulations, and perhaps even a change in the law by Congress, neither of which is likely to happen any time soon," said Ivan Wasserman, managing partner at Amin Talati Upadhye who specializes in health, wellness and other consumer products.
Bruce Silverglade, an attorney with OFW Law focusing on food labeling and advertising claims, told Food Navigator the ITIF petition wasn't likely to receive full support from the food industry because many food companies use the non-GMO certification on their products.
The FDA says it receives about 200 petitions each year, with each taking several weeks to more than a year to be evaluated before a decision is made. Once the agency grants or denies a petition, the matter can be taken to court if the petitioner is not happy with the decision. The FDA has denied petitions asking for mandatory labeling of GMOs in food products and seeking continued specific and limited uses of partially hydrogenated oils in foods. The agency has also granted and denied petitions regarding which non-digestible carbohydrates should be classified as dietary fiber on the Nutrition Facts panel.
The debate over the safety of GMOs seems destined to continue regardless of whether and how food items are labeled. Meanwhile, some manufacturers are actually touting the fact that they formulate their products with GMOs, even though one recent study found consumers still remain skeptical about them. Other food makers have responded to consumer concern by phasing out GMOs. Two years ago, Del Monte reformulated its fruit, vegetable and tomato products with non-GMO ingredients, and Hormel's Applegate brand followed suit. Earth Fare also took GMOs out of its private-label products as of last year, and more companies are likely to do the same if consumer distrust remains high.
Prohibiting the term "non-GMO" on food and beverage products doesn't mitigate this fear, however. It may be better in the long run for manufacturers to ramp up education and outreach about GMOs, what they are, and why they're being used. Unbiased information seems to be the missing link in the GMO debate, and while it's possible that the stigma regarding GMOs is too strong to change consumer perspectives, increased transparency around the ingredients could help to earn customer trust.