Apr 16 2019

FDA Takes On Misleading GMO Labeling

The FDA has released its guidelines for voluntary labeling of food products with respect to whether or not they contain ingredients that either are, or are derived from, genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The guidelines, if nothing else, are a good way for consumers to become more savvy to all the ways in which companies can use food labels that are technically truthful, but are designed to deceive.

However, it’s frustrating that these are just voluntary guidelines. They are not policy, so companies are free to just ignore them. Hopefully, they are a precursor to actual policy and regulations, but Congress had done a good job of keeping the FDA too weak to actually fulfill its mandate. So often they are left to firing off strongly worded letters, warnings, and voluntary guidelines.

Here are some of the deceptive practices the FDA discusses. Obviously they go over the basics of being accurate and truthful – what it considers a GMO, etc. These are mostly obvious or technical. More interesting are the ways in which labels deceive by omission or by implications.

For example, the guidelines note:

For example, on a product made largely of flour derived from genetically engineered corn and a small amount of non-genetically engineered soybean oil, a claim that the product “does not contain bioengineered soybean oil” could be misleading if consumers believe that the entire product, or a larger portion of it than is actually the case, is free of bioengineered material.

This type of negative claim, that a product does not contain something, has implications that extend beyond the product itself. For example, there is no commercial wheat currently that is a GMO. Therefore, all wheat on the market is non-GMO, so if any product claims, “made with GMO-free wheat,” or “non-GMO wheat” that is inherently misleading. There is the strong implication that if you are bothering to say that this wheat is non-GMO, that there exists other wheat that is GMO. This is a great example of lying with the truth. The goal is to get consumers to think – if I want to be sure my wheat is non-GMO I better buy this brand.

We see this with other negative food claims as well. Once “gluten free” became a thing, the gluten free label started popping up on things that don’t contain gluten in the first place, even water. These can also be considered “non-sequitur” claims. How about cruelty-free sugar, or calorie-free salt, or maybe fat-free jelly-beans (which are basically pure sugar).

The “GMO-Free” label is all over this. In fact, the GMO-Free project, which licences its label to products for a fee, will put its label on anything, even things for which there is no GMO option, like salt or water, or less obvious things like wheat that could potentially be GMO but does not currently exist.

What if your corn flakes say, “Does Not Contain Mercury?” That may be a completely truthful statement. As far as I know corn flakes do not contain anything more than the background environmental trace amounts of mercury. But no corn flakes do, so putting that label on one brand of corn flakes is unnecessary. It’s another type of non-sequitur claim. But the purpose of such a label is to imply to the consumer that other brands might contain mercury, that corn flakes contaminated with mercury is a thing. Therefore, just to be safe, they better buy the mercury-free brand.

The FDA addresses this as well:

Another example of a statement in food labeling that may be false or misleading could be the statement “None of the ingredients in this food is genetically engineered” on a food where some of the ingredients are incapable of being produced through genetic engineering (e.g., salt). It may be necessary to carefully qualify the statement where modern biotechnology is not used to produce a particular ingredient or type of food.

But there is a deeper deception still. When a product proudly says, “GMO-Free” the strong implication is that this is a benefit or a virtue. This further implies that being derived from a GMO is a negative. This is the FDA’s take:

Further, a statement may be false or misleading if, when considered in the context of the entire label or labeling (as noted in Section IIIA. above), it suggests or implies that a food product or ingredient is safer, more nutritious, or otherwise has different attributes than other comparable foods because the food was not genetically engineered. For example, the labeling of a bag of specific type of frozen vegetables that states that they were “not produced through modern biotechnology” could be misleading if, in addition to this statement, the labeling contains statements or vignettes that suggest or imply that, as a result of not being produced through modern biotechnology, such vegetables are safer, more nutritious, or have different attributes than other foods solely because the food was not produced using modern biotechnology.

While I agree with that position, it does not go far enough (but I understand that the FDA has to work within the limits of the existing law, even if those laws don’t make sense). The problem is, that the additional statement that being GMO-free is tied to being safer or more nutritious does not have to be on the label itself. The anti-GMO/organic lobby has already put that out there to the public to such a degree that they have manufactured a market through their deceptive propaganda.

There is precedent for this position. The FTC recognizes that companies should not be allowed to profit off of a market that they already created through deceptive marketing, even if they are forced to stop the marketing itself. The damage, essentially, is done.

I would argue that the same is clearly true of GMOs. The organic lobby has successfully poisoned the public’s mind about genetic technology thereby creating a market for their own brand, which is proudly GMO free. Now they want to capitalize on that marketing by promoting themselves as the GMO free option, and any company can do the same. They can, for example, licence the GMO-Free Project label for their product, even if the product cannot possibly be derived from GMOs.

They don’t have to say on the label – this means our food is better. That work has already been done. This is partly why forcing companies to label products as containing GMOs or food derived from GMOs is a very bad idea. It’s taking the misleading labeling one step further, and even forcing companies who will be harmed by this propaganda to pay for their own undoing, and essentially give free marketing to their competitors.

The fact is that the FDA has already determined that GMOs and their products are “substantially equivalent” to their non-GMO options. This is also a false dichotomy, as there are many methods of altering foods, and almost all foods have been altered. Most of our crops, if not GMO, are hybrids, or the result of mutation breeding.

The science here is clear, and there is no genuine controversy. Genetic modification is a technology. It is not the end product. It is also not inherently less safe than any methods of altering crops. Labeling foods as being derived from GMOs or not is all inherently deceptive. It gives the illusions of information to the public, but it is just misinforming them – in all the ways outlined above, but also in the simple implication that it says anything meaningful about the product itself. It clearly doesn’t.

The FDA seems to mostly get it. They are a bit hampered here, but probably mostly through the legislation that they have to work under. They have the job of protecting the public from misleading claims about food, but have both hands tied behind their backs. At least they are putting out reasonable guidelines, and hopefully it will help the bigger conversation. But unfortunately the anti-GMO lobby has billions of dollars on the line, and an existing infrastructure of woo-peddling social media happy to spread their propaganda.


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