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Accurate and Informative Food Product Labeling

"Seventy percent of consumers surveyed either support or do not oppose the FDA policy on the labeling of foods produced through biotechnology." International Food Information Council
' Acceptance of Food Biotechnology Matches Growers' Increased Adoption of Biotech Crops (May 2003)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's policy on the labeling of biotech foods ensures consumer safety and protection, and encourages the continued development and support for food biotechnology. This policy is broadly supported throughout agriculture, which seeks to benefit from improved crops, and the food industry, which strives to maintain the trust and safety of the public.

The FDA requires that any food, whether it is developed through biotechnology or another method, must carry a specific label if its nutritional profile or other characteristics are significantly different from its traditionally grown counterpart. Such a label would describe the new characteristic of the food and how it differs from the traditional food. For example, if a food were developed to contain more vitamin C, a label would be required to indicate that the food contains higher levels of vitamin C than is traditionally expected.

However, if a producer wants to indicate the particular method that was used or not used to change or improve the nutritional profile and other characteristics of a food, the FDA has provided draft voluntary guidelines for labeling such products. For instance, a producer could follow these guidelines to say that a particular product was developed through biotechnology, or that a particular product was not developed by biotechnology.

Biotech varieties of corn, cotton, soybeans, papaya and canola are commonly grown by American farmers and appear in various forms as ingredients throughout the food and feed supply. None of these crops is deemed by the FDA to be substantially different from their traditional counterparts, and, as such, do not require any specific labels. To date, no biotech foods have been developed and commercialized that would require a specific label.

The food industry supports the FDA requirement for labeling any food, biotech or otherwise, that is substantially different from a traditionally produced food. In the interests of safety and consumer awareness, and to maintain confidence in the U.S. food supply, labels on all packaged food must provide consumers with truthful, clear and non-misleading information.

Those who favor the mandatory labeling of any food derived through biotechnology contend that consumer choice is sacrificed by the current policy. However, opinion polls show that consumers would perceive a biotech food label as a "warning" that the product is less than safe or healthful than its non-biotech alternative, even though extensive testing demonstrates that this conclusion is not true. Thus, such a mandatory label would mislead consumers into perceiving a risk that does not exist, and therefore might result in the kind of confusion that labels are designed to avoid.

Current Law and Policy
In 1992 the FDA established a policy that all foods derived through biotechnology be regulated in the same fashion as those developed through traditional methods. This means:

  • Products of food biotechnology are subject to the same FDA labeling and safety policies applied to all foods in the U.S. marketplace.
  • Different labeling is required when, for example, biotechnology results in a significant change in the composition of a food product. Developing new oils that actually lower cholesterol levels would be an example of a substantial composition change.
  • FDA requires a label on biotechnology products, as needed, to inform consumers of any potential health or safety risk, such as if a protein poses an allergy risk. Common allergens include milk, eggs, wheat, fish, crustacia, tree nuts, and legumes (such as peanuts and soybeans). Peanuts are a common allergen. If a peanut gene that causes the allergic reaction is inserted into potatoes or corn - products where consumers would not expect to find peanut allergens - the resulting product would need a label to inform sensitive consumers.
  • A label also is required if a food is changed so that its nutritional content no longer conforms to the normal expectations. Altering the Vitamin C content of an orange to levels significantly above the normal range is a good example.
  • The FDA is able to evaluate the safety of biotech ingredients added to foods in the same way it evaluates any new ingredient, such as a new preservative or a new food-coloring agent.
  • The FDA can stop a food product from being sold at any time if it determines that a product or ingredient is unsafe for public consumption or if it is mislabeled.

Key issues:

  • Labels provide a consumer's first impression of most packaged food products. Labels list ingredients, describe features, give instructions, explain benefits and deliver advisories and warnings. Information considered essential to health and safety is mandated by law to appear on the label.
  • Labeling of biotech foods differently from their traditional counterparts would have the unintended and unfortunate consequence of misleading consumers into thinking that biotech products have different health effects.