What’s lurking in the foods people eat?
Those depending upon FDA labeling to avoid eating genetically-modified foods could potentially get hoodwinked into buying products they’d never consume if they knew the whole story.
The FDA does an adequate job of requiring that foods meet certain criteria before assigning specific labels for just about every category outside of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Though allowing for a bit of statistical ambiguity in foods labeled as low-fat, for example, the rules grow even laxer when it comes to what foods qualify for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. As a result, while consumers can rest assured that their cats’ litter contains no GMOs (nor ever did), determining whether that tin of canned pasta used genetically-modified wheat in production proves far trickier.
Non-GMO Project Verified — What Does It Really Mean?
According to the FDA, food labeled non-GMO must meet the same stringent safety requirements of other foods, but that alone hardly puts consumers’ minds at ease. According to its website, the FDA considers genetically modified foods safe for consumption. Perhaps this partially explains why the organization remains loath in enforcing the same strict labeling guidelines they apply to foods touted as cholesterol-free.
Third-party auditors evaluate food to determine whether it qualifies for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal of approval. For example, FoodChain ID, an Iowa-based company, tests ingredients in foods for compliance with labeling standards under FDA guidelines. The company extracts DNA from ingredients that may have grown near fields of genetically-modified corn or wheat.
Relatively few foods pass the test — indeed, 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. tests positive for genetic modification. As cattle consume much of this corn, few meat or dairy products receive the non-GMO label.
Whatever Happened to Truth in Advertising?
So, what’s the problem if relatively small numbers of food products receive the Non-GMO Project Certified label? Part of the issue revolves around the fact that although the FDA issued stricter guidelines for non-GMO labeling back in 2015, they’ve been lax in enforcing the rules.
Enforcement action normally involves heading to court where a judge determines whether a food product violates the labeling requirement. In one instance, grapefruit bearing the label had actually undergone gamma radiation scanning to determine if seeds possessed genetic variants that made the fruit more desirable. This process, called mutagenesis, clearly smacks of genetic modification, yet many seeds still undergo similar testing procedures today.
Activists in many corners of the nutrition world have brought the issue of deceptive labeling to light in recent years, from the non-GMO movement to those angered by foods being labeled “vegan” or “gluten-free” just for the hype. False food labeling, though, is more than just an ethics conversation — it is a legitimate health concern. In 2017, attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against Jelly Belly jelly beans, claiming the manufacturer erroneously labeled its sports beans as sugar-free when they contained cane syrup, which is basically liquid sugar. This kind of deception could create a real health risk for anyone whose doctor has ordered them not to consume certain foods or ingredients.
What Is an Absence Claim?
Another way the Non-GMO Project Certified label misleads consumers is by making absence claims. An absence claim refers to the practice of applying a non-GMO label to products that aren’t genetically modified in the first place. For example, a non-GMO label may appear on mackerel or cod caught in the ocean, but the designation means nothing, as fish caught in the wild are naturally GMO-free.
Additionally, the FDA allows companies to voluntarily designate their products as non-GMO. This creates as much consumer confusion as other voluntary disclosures such as, “Made from whole grain.” Even foods containing highly processed white flour can claim such a label as somewhere along the supply chain, whole grain wheat or barley was part of the picture.
In essence, until the FDA adopts a stricter definition of what foods qualify as non-GMO and starts taking affirmative action to penalize companies who participate in misleading labeling, consumers cannot determine with 100 percent certainty that the brands they purchase were truly grown free of genetic modification. The label holds little, if any, merit over foods labeled “lower in fat” — lower in fat than what?
The Action Threshold
Still, one more way the Non-GMO Project Verified label misleads consumers is by instituting action thresholds. An action threshold refers to the amount of GMO contamination products may contain and still earn the designation. The action threshold for foods intended for human consumption stands at 0.9 percent, and 5 percent for foods consumed by livestock.
Because of the relatively high action threshold when compared to other nations, people living in countries outside the U.S. likewise find the designation meaningless and misleading. For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recently said that the butterfly Non-GMO Project Verified label fails to meet their standards for foods considered free from GMOs.
Cracking Down on Misleading Claims
Several nations, including those in the European Union (EU), Greece, Sweden, and Russia have passed prohibitions on the cultivation and import of GMO foods. The fact that so many other countries ban GMOs should serve as a wake-up call for countries like the U.S. who have no such restrictions. Even if the FDA refuses to crack down on GMOs out of a genuine belief these foods cause no harm, they nevertheless should take much stricter enforcement action against violators as bans on the import of GMO food hurts the U.S. farm economy in terms of international trade.
A GMO-Free World
The course of human knowledge flows unhindered in today’s information age, and those committed to healthy eating can hope that as more nations prohibit the import and growing of GMO foods, those countries currently refusing to do so will risk falling behind if they cling adamantly to loose interpretations of the potential danger of GMOs. In the meantime, though, finding truly GMO-free food may well require a trip to an Amish farmers market. Citizens who understand the dangers of GMOs must keep the pressure on elected officials to make them take concrete action to protect peoples’ health.