October 25, 2016
Food labeling claims are a confusing mix of simple words whose meaning is anything but, and complex certifications that even some in the food industry would struggle to fully explain. Local, organic, natural, grassfed, non-GMO – figuring out what each means and which claims are actually verified is enough to give the most savvy consumers a headache.
Thanks to the recent campaign to secure mandatory labeling of GMO-foods (which resulted in the creation of a mandatory label, but one many pro-labeling advocates are far from satisfied with), debate over the label “non-GMO” has been a particularly hot-button discussion of late. The non-GMO label can be confusing enough to interpret on produce or processed goods, but what does it mean when its put on a meat package? Many consumers, and even farmers for that matter, would see the non-GMO label on their chicken, beef, or eggs and assume that the animal from which that product came would have been fed non-GMO derived feed.
Seems like a relatively safe and straightforward assumption right? Unfortunately – it’s not.
In August of 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that they will, “begin approving negative claims for meat, poultry and egg products that do not contain bioengineered ingredients, or that are derived from livestock that do not consume bioengineered feed, and that contain the terms ‘genetically modified organism’ or ‘GMO,’” (emphasis added). Not sure what that means? You’re not alone.
Issued in response to the enactment of the mandatory GMO labeling law signed into law earlier this summer by President Obama, the FSIS guidelines for farmers, ranchers, and other producers interested in making “non-GMO” labeling claims went into effect immediately after their announcement. FSIS also provided a 60 day window for the public to comment on their compliance guidelines. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) comments can be found here.
On the surface, FSIS’ announcement and associated guidelines seem like a positive move in support of transparency. However, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. For example, one of the most important parts of the FSIS guidelines is the use of the word “or”. Two simple letters, and yet their inclusion changes both the intent and the outcome of the guidelines.
Instead of aligning the guidelines to consumer expectations, which would require that meat or eggs labeled “non-GMO” not contain any bioengineered ingredients and not be derived from livestock fed bioengineered feed; FSIS has said that “either/or” is fine. What this means in practice, is that FSIS could approve a non-GMO labeling claim for products containing meat or eggs derived from animals raised on GMO feed. Thanks to the use of “or” this is possible, because technically the eggs or meat are not themselves bioengineered, and therefore would not be considered “bioengineered ingredients”.
Not only is this kind of misleading labeling unacceptable for consumers, it also undermines and disadvantages those producers that have built their businesses and markets based on consumers’ faith in the “non-GMO” label.
Under FSIS’ current guidance, an attentive and savvy consumer that wants to support their vision of sustainable agriculture could ostensibly find themselves in the aisle of their local grocery looking at two very different products, a frozen pizza with sausage for example, both labeled non-GMO. While both would carry the same non-GMO label claim – the only way for the consumer to easily understand the product’s history and ingredients – one pizza could contain sausage from animals raised on GMO feed, while the other pizza could contain sausage from animals fed only non-GMO feed.
The very real possibility of this scenario is a subversion of logic, and of consumer expectation. Yet, the reason for the new FSIS notice, in response to industry requests, was to clarify that the same label can apply to both products.
NSAC has called on FSIS to align their guidance with consumer and farmer expectations by changing “or” to “and”. We have also urged them to ensure that any third party certifier of a non-GMO labeling claim establish clear and verifiable standards, which would prevent products derived from animals fed GMO feed from carrying a non-GMO label.
Similar to the revocation and current rebranding of the “grassfed” label, this is yet another example of how our current animal raising claims labeling system is illogical and ineffective, harmful to farmers, and misleading to consumers. We urge FSIS and USDA to not only make the necessary “or” to “and” correction, but also to use this as an opportunity to conduct a top to bottom review of this antiquated system of permitting consumer-facing labels to mean whatever industry wants them to mean. Farmers and the public deserve animal raising claims guidelines that are clear, not misleading, and easily verifiable.