(originally written by Cookson Beecher)
There was a time when food was food. You ate it and were glad of it. What could be more “natural” than that? But that was back in earlier times when most food came either from your own farm or from stores that bought food from nearby farms.
Fast forward to today, and food has become a sometimes complicated and oftentimes controversial topic — all the more so since 1994 with the introduction of a genetically engineered tomato variety, Flavr Savr, which was developed to delay ripening. As the first genetically engineered food to be sold commercially, it opened a new era in agriculture.
Before that, new types of fruits and vegetables were developed by breeding varieties with desired qualities with each other to produce hybrids that were more productive and many times larger, tastier, and easier to grow. But in that sort of traditional breeding method, the genetic material (the DNA or RNA) of the plants wasn’t deliberately altered in ways that would not occur naturally through mating or cell division.
But with genetic engineering, all of that came to be, and some new players entered the scene. We’re talking about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. And we’re still talking about them, only this time it’s gone a step further than whether foods containing GMOs should bear labels informing consumers of the fact — proposals narrowly rejected recently by voters in California and Washington.
Now it’s about whether foods containing GMOs will be allowed to be labeled as “natural.”
‘Big Food’ plans petition to FDA
Last month, “Big Food,” in the form of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade organization that represents more than 300 businesses, sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advising that it intends to petition the agency to allow foods containing GMOs to be labeled as “natural.”
Not surprisingly, this has triggered controversy in the industry and among consumers. In some cases, outrage would be a good word for it.
“It’s a sneaky tactic,” said Sandi Tenneson, who grew up on beef and dairy farms in Western Washington. “It shouldn’t be allowed. The only label that means anything right now is ‘organic’ and maybe ‘grass fed.’ They need to clarify what ‘natural’ is.”
Foods labeled as “organic” are not allowed to contain any GMOs, according to USDA’s organic certification standards.
Examples of GMO ingredients found in many processed foods are genetically modified corn, sugar, soy, and oils made from genetically engineered crops. That’s significant because up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain GMO ingredients. In fact, according to the Non-GMO Project, as of 2012, 93 percent of soy, 88 percent of field corn (corn raised for seed or livestock), 94 percent of cotton and more than 90 percent of canola seed and sugar beets planted in the United States are genetically engineered.
In other words, people are — and have been — eating a lot of foods containing GMOs. Yet at the same time, consumers are increasingly seeking out what they perceive to be natural foods and products.
Out in the marketplace, foods labeled as “natural” accounted for about 10 percent of all grocery sales in 2013, while organic food and products made up about 5 percent of all grocery sales that year, according to a report by the Organic Consumers Association. It’s no secret in the food industry that these categories continue to rack up sales faster than those in other categories.
“Big Food” is aware of this, and it also knows that there are about 65 class-action lawsuits filed against food manufacturers over whether foods with ingredients derived from biotechnology (GMOs) can be labeled as “natural.” Some of these lawsuits have resulted in multi-million-dollar settlements for aggrieved consumers who felt they had been duped by the “natural” labeling.
The problem is that FDA has no official definition for the meaning of “natural” on food labels. However, its website does offer this information:
“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”