Why the FDA doesn't want you to say 'GMO'

Why the FDA doesn't want you to say 'GMO'
A Whole Foods grocery store touts products that are "non-GMO." (Carline Jean / MCT)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants Americans to stop talking about "GMOs."

It's not that the agency wants people to pretend that the nation's food supply is unadulterated by modern science. It's that regulators want the public to understand exactly what it means to say that a product is "genetically modified."

The issue returned to the spotlight Thursday when the FDA gave its blessing to the AquAdvantage Salmon, a type of Atlantic salmon whose genome includes a growth hormone gene borrowed from chinook salmon and some additional DNA from an eel-like fish that keeps the gene turned on. With the extra DNA spliced in, AquAdvantage Salmon reach market size twice as fast as their conventional, farm-raised counterparts.

In announcing their approval of the genetically engineered salmon, federal regulators emphasized that the addition of DNA from a related species presents no danger to consumers, the environment or the fish itself. The resulting food is nutritionally indistinguishable from traditional Atlantic salmon and is "safe to eat," said Dr. Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

At the same time, the agency issued new guidance to food makers about how to describe their products and the bioengineering that may -- or may not -- have gone into them.

The FDA can't require engineered foods to carry a label describing them as such; in order to warrant such a label, the food would have to be materially different from its non-engineered brethren, according to federal law.

But companies may label their products voluntarily to let consumers know whether their food contains engineered ingredients. The FDA's advice is aimed at making sure these labels are neither false nor misleading.

Here's a closer look at that advice:

What is a GMO?

GMO stands for "genetically modified organism." In common parlance, this has come to mean a food made with ingredients that were genetically engineered. Visit a Whole Foods grocery store, for instance, and you can find tortillas, baby food, bath soap, chardonnay and scores of other items that have been certified "non-GMO."

What's wrong with that label?

The FDA's concern is that the description is overly broad, and is sometimes inaccurate.

How so?

Practically all foods with plant ingredients have been genetically modified in some way. Traditional plant breeding involves changing the DNA of a crop to improve it in some way, such as taste, color, longevity or pest resistance. Selective breeding of crops may change a single gene in a plant or alter an entire suite of genes. Either way, the result is a crop that is genetically modified.

An example of a food that isn't genetically modified would be "berries collected from wild plant varieties," according to the FDA.

Which part is inaccurate?

In many cases, it's the use of the word "organism." "Most foods do not contain entire organisms," the FDA said.

One exception would be yogurt, which includes bacterial microorganisms such as Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus.

How is food genetically engineered?

Instead of changing a plant or animal's DNA through breeding over many generations, scientists make direct, specific changes to DNA in the lab. First, they figure out which genes they want to add. Then they insert those genes by injecting them directly into cells or splicing them into a virus that will transfer the genes itself, among other options.

Isn't that a lot to fit onto a label?

Yes, but no one is asking for that. The FDA simply wants manufacturers to say that their products are "not bioengineered," "not genetically engineered," or "not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology."

If food makers want to get more detailed, they could say something such as, "Our tomato growers do not plant bioengineered seeds," or "This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered."

What will the FDA do if companies ignore their advice?

Probably nothing. "We do not intend to take enforcement action against a label using the acronym 'GMO,'" the FDA guidance says.

Does that mean companies can say anything they want?

No. The FDA warned it would come after companies that make false or misleading claims.

For instance, a company can't say that its products are free of genetically engineered ingredients if they really aren't. Nor should it boast that none of its ingredients is bioengineered if some of those ingredients would be impossible to genetically engineer, such as salt.

It would also be dishonest for a company to tout the fact that one of its ingredients isn't genetically engineered while failing to mention that others are.

Anything else?

A company could run into trouble if it "suggests or implies that a food product of ingredient is safer, more nutritious, or otherwise has different attributes than other comparable foods because the food was not genetically engineered," the FDA said.

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