Some companies in California were surprised recently when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food labeling, announced that it was considering no longer allowing food products to be labeled as “milk” unless they came from lactating animals.
Almond “milk” has become increasingly popular with consumers and essentially all almonds in the U.S. are grown in California. The state also leads the U.S. in milk production, and dairy interests applauded the FDA move, as they view plant-derived “milk” as piggybacking on the efforts they have made to convince the public of the health benefits of consuming milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products.
Regardless of these contrasting consequences for key California products, the proposal is consistent with FDA labeling regulations designed to prevent misleading consumers. For example, it is not legal to label plant products as being “cholesterol free,” because plants don’t produce cholesterol. All plant products are cholesterol free, so it is misleading to label some of them that way, as it implies that other plant products not labeled as cholesterol free might contain the compound. At a minimum, advertising a plant product as being cholesterol free implies that some plant products do contain cholesterol, which is false.
This consumer protection principle will soon be tested across a much wider range of products. Following a law passed by Congress in 2016, the federal Agricultural Marketing Service is devising guidelines for mandatory labeling of food products developed using some specific crop breeding methods. These include improving crops using methods to give them specific characteristics directly, such as the ability to ward off insects without pesticide applications or to require less fertilizer or water, rather than requiring years of development. Even though crops bred using these methods have been grown widely for over 20 years without any harm to consumers, these “Genetically Modified Organism” (GMO) labels or symbols will soon be required on foods in the U.S. in the interest of the consumers’ right to know what is in their foods.
As labeling of GMO foods was not required previously, the Non-GMO Project has promoted its butterfly label to indicate that these genetic improvement methods have not been used on those products. However, this project has gotten out of control, as nearly 50,000 products now bear the Non-GMO Project label, including kitty litter, salt, and other products that are not even alive. Clearly, table salt is not an “organism,” so labeling it as a potential GMO is false and misleading.
If this sounds like a violation of FDA’s consumer protection rules, you are right. Only 10 GMO crops are grown in the U.S. (field and sweet corn, soybeans, alfalfa, cotton, sugar beets, papaya, canola, squash, apples, and potatoes), so putting a Non-GMO label on products made from any other crops is the same as the “cholesterol free” example above. As no GMO varieties of those other crops are grown commercially anywhere, it is misleading to imply that some of them could have been in your food.
In addition, once the labeling law is implemented, all foods that do contain GMO ingredients will be labeled and lists of GMO crops will be maintained and updated by the USDA. Thus, there will no longer be any rationale for the misleading “verification” provided by the Non-GMO Project.
Instead, consumers will be able to look for the symbol that will signal to them that crop breeders have used safe and tested methods to make our crops more healthy and productive and more resilient to changing pest and weather patterns. It soon will be time for the FDA to enforce its own rules and crack down on the Non-GMO Project and similar labels that profit from playing on unfounded fears to mislead consumers.
Kent J. Bradford is the director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.