Say this for the U.S.'s big food producers: They have no shortage of chutzpah. That's the biggest conclusion one can draw from a plan by the Grocery Manufacturers Association to demand that regulators allow its members to put the "natural" label on foods containing genetically modified ingredients.
The details can be found in a Dec. 5 letter from the trade group's general counsel to the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food labeling. The letter doesn't just ask the FDA for a ruling on the "natural" designation; it also seems designed to force the agency's hand by noting that the trade group plans to file a citizen petition demanding such a ruling.
Maybe the letter's timing is a coincidence, though that seems unlikely: The trade group spearheaded a successful drive in November to narrowly defeat a ballot initiative in Washington state that would have required the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. At least three other states are planning similar initiatives in the coming year, while more than a dozen others are also considering labeling requirements. Connecticut just passed a law mandating disclosure of genetically modified ingredients, although the labeling rule only takes effect if neighboring states adopt matching laws.
If the FDA gives the go-ahead to labeling genetically modified foods as "natural," it would be a huge win for major food producers and agricultural-products makers such as seedmaker Monsanto Co. Presumably, an FDA labeling rule would trump Connecticut's law and preempt other states from adopting similar legislation.
The foodmakers have an opening to seek the natural designation because the FDA and most of the scientific community make no distinction between genetically modified foods and other foods. Further muddying matters, the FDA has failed to say exactly what constitutes "natural" food. Rather than putting out a clear set of regulations, the FDA in the early 1990s issued guidelines stipulating that ``nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.''
So where does this leave an ingredient such as high fructose corn syrup, which obviously is derived from corn? Or maltodextrin, a carbohydrate made from rice, corn or potatoes and used as a thickener or filler? Some processed foods bearing the "natural" designation contain these and other ingredients that many consumers might see in a very different manner. That has been problematic for food manufacturers, which face as many as 100 lawsuits claiming this misleads consumers. Last August, for example, PepsiCo Inc. agreed to pay $9 million and strip the "All Natural" label from its line of Naked fruit juices, which contained genetically modified ingredients.
The foodmakers clearly want to quash these suits, though there's something perhaps more important at stake: The market for natural foods is huge, generating an estimated $40 billion in sales a year. Consumer demand is what led to the creation of the natural label in the first place, so the industry very much wants the freedom to promote its products with that designation.
There is a solution here, though it probably won’t make anyone in this fracas happy. The FDA should first lay down definitive rules on natural foods and end the ambiguity that lets food producers play the labeling game. In the meantime, Barack Obama's administration should follow through on a promise the president made when he was campaigning for office and require labeling of genetically modified foods. It is beyond doubt that a wide majority of consumers say they want to know what's in their food. They should have that information.
After that, let foodmakers label something "natural" even if it contains bioengineered ingredients. Is corn that contains a single gene that was carefully implanted in a laboratory of any more risk than corn that was created through the promiscuous mixing of genes in traditional hybridization? As long as the science says no, it's hard to see the harm. More and better labeling is the answer.
(James Greiff is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)