When you go to the supermarket these days, a baffling and sometimes overwhelming array of products are available to the consumer – organic, ethically sourced, free-from, insect-friendly, free-range… the list goes on. But which one to pick, do you know what is really in the product and even then, do you know what that means? If you have ever tried to decipher some food packaging it can be a mine field and the information disclosed by different manufactures and producers can vary greatly.
In a move aimed to make the origins of food more transparent for consumers, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in May 2018 plans requiring brands to declare any bioengineered ingredients. Now, following a period of consultation, the USDA have launched the new rulings – but what does this mean for producers, retailers and consumers?
Public concerns over bioengineering
Bioengineered (BE) foods, also referred to as genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GM) are foods for which the DNA of the source organism has been artificially modified in some way, ordinarily to alter traits of that organism. The first commercial GM foods went on sale in 1994 when Calgene produced a tomato for which ripening could be delayed. With an ever-growing population, there is increasing strain on resources to boost food production through increased yields and reduced wastage for which GM can provide assistance. Whilst there have been many success stories for GM foods, such as increasing drought tolerance, reducing susceptibility to pests and increasing yield, GM foods have been treated with great suspicion by many consumers.
During the early days of GM crop development, many stories hit the headlines as protesters burnt down test crops. Whilst such occurrences have died down, ongoing public concerns relating to safety have continued.
A recent report found that 51 % of 2,537 U.S. adults surveyed thought that the average person faces a serious health risk from food additives over their lifetime. Alarmingly, the survey also highlighted that around half (49%) of those asked believed that foods with GM ingredients are worse for one's health than non-GM foods.
But are these worries based on hard evidence, a lack of convincing research to the contrary or a lack of understanding? We spoke to Dr. Tim Durham, Farmer and Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Agricultural Sciences at Ferrum College about the issue. “Since their widespread adoption in 1996, genetically modified foods have an impeccable track record, both environmentally and health-wise. What makes us so sure they’re a home run and not a menace? We hit the literature and search for evidence. First, individual studies, then multi-year compilations to tease meaningful results from statistical noise. The results of these “meta-analyses” resolve an undeniably clear consensus on GM crop safety. They pose no greater risks from any of the more ho hum breeding methods we’ve already been using (many of which are much less precise and more risky but aren’t coined GM due to “interpretative differences” in what makes a GM crop).
This consensus is embodied in the policy of over 280 respected scientific and technical organizations. This includes a who’s who in the scientific community: the AMA, AAAS, NAS, WHO. Long term studies have also been publicly funded by the European Union, with the same net result.
Despite this consensus in the scientific community, misgivings abound in the public sector. This suspicion has been fed by shoddily performed, provocative studies. Often, these are released to the public before proper vetting by the scientific community. In effect, bypassing quality control. Riddled with dubious protocols and questionable interpretation, a number have been very publicly (and embarrassingly) retracted. But this cherry picking is effective, it goes viral. And retraction or not, the seeds of discontent have already been planted. These seeds sprout with a stubborn, weed-like persistence – ideas or concepts out of place and taken out of context.”
Public curiosity and confidence drives a need for change
Cases of food fraud have contributed to wavering public confidence in the safety of food products . Coverage of major food fraud incidents by the international media has grown by nearly 80% in recent years, partially fueled by ever improving analytical detection techniques.
Indicators suggest that, in general, consumers are becomingly increasingly curious about what goes into the foods they consume. Inclusion and exclusion diets, including vegetarianism and veganism, and an all-time high in food allergies and intolerances, mean that many consumers are turning to the back of the packet for more information. However, what they seek is not always there.
In the U.S., growth of GM crops is regulated at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), each with authority to oversee specific aspects of the crops and their products. This may keep the consumer safe but doesn’t necessarily mean that the consumer can make an informed choice for themselves if they wish to consume food from a bioengineered source.
When asked about what he saw as the most significant drivers for the change in ruling regarding the labeling of bioengineered food ingredients, Dr Durham commented that “there are three in particular: 1) consumer right to know, 2) safety, and 3) avoidance. The populist appeal to “know what’s in my food” is compelling on the surface. The issue is that GM crops aren’t ingredients or additives. Genetic modification (GM), or any of its synonyms (GMO, GE, GEO, LMO – or bioengineered, as the food disclosure standard mandates) is a plant breeding process. It’s more matter of fact. It fundamentally tells us nothing about their safety. Typically, labeling outlines genuine threats. For instance, those allergic to gluten, dairy, or shellfish. These are bona fide cases where labeling is necessary and proper. Avoidance comes into play. GM crops don’t satisfy any of these criteria. They’re non-allergenic and non-toxic (we routinely – and out of necessity – eat DNA and proteins).”
In response, in 2017, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) posed 30 questions to consumers, retailers, manufacturers, farmers and beyond to establish opinion surrounding bioengineering of food ingredients and the availability of data to consumers. Over 112,000 people responded and the AMS listened.
What does the bioengineered food labeling ruling mean for the food industry and consumers?
The new ruling aims to provide a mandatory, uniform disclosure standard for bioengineered food to provide consistent information to consumers. However, such a major change will have repercussions for producers and retailers. To address this, the USDA have undertaken a period of consultation to consider comments and concerns from the food industry prior to making the final announcement. Points for discussion have included defining what is deemed to be bioengineered and how companies can show this information on their packaging.
The aim of the legislation is not to imply safety or lack thereof of bioengineering food ingredients, but to supply the pubic with sufficient information to enable them to make their own choice as to whether they consume bioengineered products.
Whilst having the interest of the consumer at its heart, the governing body are also mindful of the cost implications of introducing such rulings and are therefore seeking to minimize implementation and compliance costs for the food industry which would inevitably be passed to the consumer in many cases.
In a statement in response to the recent USDA ruling, GMO Answers, an initiative committed to responding to consumer questions about how their food is grown, commented “GMOs are the most carefully researched and tested agricultural products on the market with more than two decades of scientific evidence proving their health, safety, and environmental benefits. By requiring GMO labeling, our hope is that the USDA’s final disclosure rule will encourage Americans who remain confused about GMOs to seek answers, and ultimately make food choices based on science, not fear.”
The implementation date of the Standard is January 1, 2020, except for small food manufacturers, whose implementation date is January 1, 2021. The mandatory compliance date is January 1, 2022. For brands that fail to meet the deadline it could prove costly as non-compliant products may be removed from shelves.