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To label or not to label?

May 3, 2012
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That is the question, whether ‘tis nobler to include the product’s constituent ingredients on the label—even when they’re not required by regulatory agencies—or not to include those ingredients, thereby creating an uproar inflamed by media attention when they’re discovered.

On two fronts, products and their labeling have come into question. First, and having received the most media attention, is lean finely textured beef (LFTB). Consumer groups, members of congress, the media and the public have petitioned the USDA to require ground beef suppliers to include information on their labels if LFTB is contained in their products. Second, consumer groups and members of congress have petitioned FDA to require labeling anytime a genetically engineered (GE) plant or animal is used in a food product.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) applauded a bill introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) that would require the labeling of LFTB when used as an ingredient in food products. The “Requiring Easy and Accurate Labeling of Beef Act (REAL Beef Act) would require any beef containing LFTB to have a label at the final point of sale. The bill has 10 initial cosponsors within the House of Representatives.

In response to mounting public concern and calls from Rep. Pingree and others in Congress over the use of LFTB in school lunches, the USDA said it will offer school districts a choice in purchasing ground beef as part of its federally-subsidized school foods programs, according to CFS.

“Several companies have chosen to voluntarily pursue a new claim on their product labels that will allow them to clarify the use of LFTB,” says Aaron Lavallee, USDA spokesman. “USDA has received this type of application for the first time through the normal label approval process, and the department has determined that such requests will be approved. By exercising this existing option, these companies can continue to provide a lean, safe and nutritious product to an informed customer base.”

“Labeling the presence of LFTB and/or FTB has been an option for industry since [LFTB] began being incorporated into ground beef products more than a decade ago,” adds Lavellee. “In fact, doing so does not require a change in USDA regulations and is not an exception. However, a voluntary statement on a label indicating that ground beef does or does not contain LFTB is a claim. Under the regulation, FSIS is required to verify the accuracy of all label claims prior to their use by industry. This labeling option is similar to other commonly used claims, including labeling beef as being from Black Angus cows.”

On the other side of the coin, CFS is applauding the submission of more than one-million public comments to the FDA calling on the agency to require the labeling of GE foods. More than 450 organizations, businesses and associations have come together to support the CFS legal action in the “Just Label It” campaign, according to CFS. CFS also says that 55 members in Congress have joined in support.

“FDA should require the labeling of genetically engineered foods,” says Andrew Kimbrell, CFS executive director. “Providing basic information doesn’t confuse people, it empowers them to make informed choices. Absent labeling, Americans are left in the dark, unable to choose for themselves whether to purchase GE foods.”

In a 1992 policy statement, FDA allowed GE foods to be marketed without labeling on the basis that they were not materially different from other foods. In doing so, the agency severely limited what it considered material, targeting only changes in food that could be recognized by taste, smell or other senses, according to CFS. This outdated standard has no statutory basis and was created by FDA despite a lack of scientific studies or data to support the assumption that GE foods are not materially different from conventional foods, according to CFS. CFS also contends FDA hasn’t done long-term studies regarding the effects of GE foods on people. Today, 70 percent of processed foods contain GE ingredients.

Unfortunately, mistakes happen, and illegal GE foods have entered the market. FDA disallowed Syngenta Bt-10, a transgenic corn, as it contained a marker gene that conferred resistance to ampicillin (See “Europe Leaves Modified Corn Inquiry to U.S.,” New York Times, April 6, 2005). Syngenta’s Bt-11, a similar type without the ampicillin marker gene, had been approved for some time. After an accidental release of Bt-10 into the field in the US and with Bt-10 corn having been exported in small quantities to Europe, FDA published the April 27, 2005 statement, “U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Statement on Bt-10 Corn,” which denied the use of Bt-10 corn in the US.

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