GMOs (genetically modified organisms) play a large role in the food supply, especially in the United States. They can reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, make foods more nutritious, increase shelf life, and most importantly, feed the growing world population. They must pass a series of rigorous tests that can take up to a decade, and undergo a more stringent process than conventional crops to be commercially sold. Yet, GMO labeling is an unavoidable topic in the food and beverage industry, primarily driven by consumer misconception about safety.
Although FDA continues to uphold the stance that genetically engineered ingredients approved for sale are safe to consume, there have been many GMO labeling initiatives introduced in the past few years. Consumers argue that, safe or not, they have the right to know if their food is genetically modified. This belief resulted in 35 initiatives across 20 states in 2014, and in May of 2015, Vermont became the first state to require GMO labeling. Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law was set to be implemented this year, with many states on target to follow suit; this would have created a patchwork of legislation differing across state lines, complicating distribution.
However, on July 29, 2016, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law amending The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 with the addition of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. This law requires the labeling of foods containing GMOs, forming a nationwide standard and preempting state-level GMO labeling laws. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard stops the patchwork of differing labeling laws and avoids the complications that would have developed by establishing a single law. While it may have addressed some concerns regarding the issue of GMO labeling (i.e., meat and animal-derived products, such as milk and butter, that consume GMO feed will not have to be labeled), it leaves important questions unanswered. For instance, even though the law directly states genetically engineered ingredients that are commercially grownsuch as canola, corn, soy and sugar beetsare required to be labeled, it has yet to state whether food made from these products (i.e., canola oil and high-fructose corn syrup) will be required as well.
Unfortunately, the GMO issue contains a lot of gray area like the examples mentioned above; some products are not GMO themselves, but utilize at-risk ingredients as processing aids. For instance, enzymes are standardized with corn starch, extracts utilize corn-based solvents, yeast grows on sugar beets and so on. If USDA determines these processing aids must be non-GMO verified in order to receive the label, then suppliers are faced with the challenge of proving they are non-GMO, since the true test for GMOs happens at seed level. Would a bromelain supplier have to trace back to the seed of the corn starch that it was standardized on? If so, a complete readjustment in the supply chains of these gray-area ingredients would be needed. Will there be enough availability? Sourcing, validation, testing and corroboration between supplier and customer would contribute to increased raw costs. Will there still be demand? Although this amendment to The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 mandates GMO labeling, what exactly needs to be labeled is unclear at this point. Details still need to be determined, requiring USDA to develop more of the specifics of the law in the next two years.
In addition to the old questions left unanswered, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard also raises new questions, as any new law does. One such new question involves new technology. Would the new law address technological advances in modification methods? If so, how? One such scenario caught the attention of the public: genetically modified salmon, which are modified with genes found naturally versus those synthetically made. Would they still fall under the requirement of GMO labeling? Another new question involves the label itself. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard gives companies several options in terms of a label: text, symbol, 1-800 number or scannable QR code. Although the methods of the 1-800 number and the scannable QR code can give the consumer the most information regarding each genetically engineered ingredient, they pose a barrier for those without a phone/smartphone, which would typically be low income households. Consumers and those in the industry could not and did not predict the type of label would be a big cause of concern; most were focused on what would be considered genetically modified and automatically assumed the label would be distinguishable on the package, either a text like the “Big eight" allergen information or a symbol like USDA Organic. Interestingly, this law requires GMO labeling without actually requiring a label.
With the passing of this amendment to The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946, the food and beverage Industry could avoid differing and possibly conflicting GMO labeling laws. However, there are still a lot of questions USDA needs to answer regarding the new GMO labeling law in the next two years. I encourage those within the industry to try to take part. No one understands the nature of our products and our supply chains better than us. We in the industry, both manufacturer and supplier, need to be the ones setting the standards. GMO labeling will be a processone USDA has yet to clearly define and can only do so with the help of the industry. Until these questions are answered, the current state of the non-GMO market will remain the same; consumers will depend on voluntary labels such as Non-GMO Project Verified, organic products or manufacturers and retailers that have adopted non-GMO products and policies, such as Whole Foods Market, which is striving for complete GMO transparency by 2018.
As president and CEO of BI Nutraceuticals (botanicals.com), George Pontiakos oversees operations for BI Nutraceuticals' and the Zuellig Group Nutrition and Ingredients division in China. Pontiakos has held senior leadership positions at several leading consulting, medical services and technology companies. He has wide-ranging experience in scaling geographically dispersed global companies to maximize their ability to successfully compete in the marketplace. Pontiakos holds a bachelor's degree in business management from Farleigh Dickinson University.