Reexamining the Labeling for Biotechnology in Foods - the Species Connection
38 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2005
Under FDA's labeling policy, no labeling is needed about the use of the process of genetic engineering in foods. Disclosures are only needed if the modification changes the material characteristics of the food in a way that requires a new name, or if the change involves risks to consumers such as the transfer of an allergen. This article considers the need for disclosure when the transfer involves a gene from a different species beyond the reach of traditional plant breeding. For example, if a sugar gene were transferred to a fruit or vegetable to enhance flavor, the name should reflect that the food is sweetened, but a disclosure also seems needed in the ingredient statement to reflect the new plant source of the characteristic.
Many gene transfers are made not for taste and nutrition but for agronomic purposes. Bacteria genes derived from genes used in pesticide sprays are widely incorporated in corn and other foods. A field test was even made about the ability to transfer a fish gene to a fruit to retard frost damage. Labeling agronomic uses presents special hurdles. FDA's authority over chemical pesticides is statutorily limited, and labeling only bioengineered pest-protectants could advantage chemical pesticides. The article suggests consideration of a labeling requirement that all foods using chemical or bioengineered pest protectors be labeled as having "crop protectors," leaving it to consumers to seek out more information through voluntary labeling. A transfer that involves use of an animal or fish gene as a crop protector should be specifically identified.
Lastly, bioengineered uses can present species environmental risks, as exemplified by the proposal for FDA approval of gene-modified salmon that would produce larger fish in fish-farms. However, some of these fish are likely to escape and there is scientific uncertainty whether the interbreeding or competition with the escaped fish could alter the natural species. One response to the uncertainty would be to have labeling that informs consumers that protective measures are in place to minimize and monitor the risk. That labeling might encourage the development of better techniques to prevent escape.
Keywords: Biotechnology, genetically modified foods, food biotechnology, bioengineered salmon
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