There is an ongoing debate about genetically modified organisms (GMO). For example, California voters rejected mandatory labeling of GMO-food. On a somewhat related note, in the US, it is apparently legal to feed artificial hormones to cows; this question addresses the issue. Despite earlier trials, labelling food as without using artificial hormones appears to be permitted.

My question, is about labeling food that does not contain GMO. For example, this page claims:

FDA won’t allow food to be labeled free of genetic modification

Arguably, the arrival of GMO Salmon, also unlabeled, might spark renewed debate.

Is it true that in the USA, it is not permitted to label food as free of genetic modification?

  • That is accurate. The reasoning goes that it is essentially libel against foods not so marked. – Affable Geek Jan 17 '13 at 1:20
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    @AffableGeek, 100% real propaganda – user1873 Jan 17 '13 at 7:45

No, it is not true. You may label your food "GMO-free" if you wish.

Many "organic" sites claim that the FDA is restricting them from labeling their food as "GMO-free."

Notable for companies wanting to advertise products as non-genetically modified is the fact that the FDA says it will not allow labels like "GM-free," "GMO-Free" or "biotech-free."

This website points to these FDA documents.

  • Docket No. 00N-1396, CFSAN 74. "Premarket Notice Concerning Bioengineered Foods."
  • Docket No. 00D-1598, CFSAN 123. "Draft Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Developed Using Bioengineering; Availability."

I am going to focus on the latter, because the former has little to do with Bioengineered food labeling. The words in the title that should stick out to you is Voluntary Labeling.

This draft guidance represents FDA's current thinking on voluntary labeling of foods indicating whether foods have or have not been developed using bioengineering. It does not create or confer any rights for or on any person and does not operate to bind FDA or the public.

The agency is providing the following guidance to assist manufacturers who wish to voluntarily label their foods as being made with or without the use of bioengineered ingredients.

and the text goes on to say:

Terms that are frequently mentioned in discussions about labeling foods with respect to bioengineering include "GMO free" and "GM free." "GMO" is an acronym for "genetically modified organism" and "GM" means "genetically modified." [...]

Terms like "not genetically modified" and "GMO free," that include the word "modified" are not technically accurate unless they are clearly in a context that refers to bioengineering technology. "Genetic modification" means the alteration of the genotype of a plant using any technique, new or traditional. [...] Most, if not all, cultivated food crops have been genetically modified.

FDA recognizes that there are analytical methods capable of detecting low levels of some bioengineered materials in some foods, but a threshold would require methods to test for a wide range of genetic changes at very low levels in a wide variety of foods. Such test methods are not available at this time. The agency suggests that the term "free" either not be used in bioengineering label statements or that it be in a context that makes clear that a zero level of bioengineered material is not implied.

So, the FDA is advising, not forcing food manufactures not to use the "GMO-free" label, because it might be misleading to consumers. There currently is an organization that offers a similar label, Non-GMO product verified, but even they admit:

Are products bearing the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal GMO free? - Unfortunately, “GMO free” and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology. In addition, the risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is “GMO free.” The Project’s claim offers a true statement acknowledging the reality of contamination risk, but assuring the shopper that the product in question is in compliance with the Project’s rigorous standard. The website url is included as part of the Seal to ensure that there is transparency for consumers who want to learn more about our verification. While the Non-GMO Project’s verification seal is not a “GMO free” claim, it is trustworthy, defensible, transparent, and North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance.

The last part is lawyer speak, and is why they can get away with using the "Non-GMO Project Verified" seal. (similar to how Quik can get away with, "100% real chocolate flavor")

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    +1, especially for "Most, if not all, cultivated food crops have been genetically modified". It's anmazing how antis-cientific and anti-evolution certain political forces are when it comes to THEIR pet politics :) – user4012 Jan 17 '13 at 11:52
  • @DVK, "GMO" is near-universally understood to mean "genetically engineered". – gerrit Jan 17 '13 at 12:42
  • @gerrit - just because people are scientifically ignorant, doesn't mean said ignorance should inform scientific or regulartory discourse. – user4012 Jan 17 '13 at 14:37
  • @DVK, correct. I'd like to see a more correct phrase in common use, something along the lines of "genetic engineering" (I'm no biotechnologist so I'm not sure if that is even really correct). The same for "climate change" or "global warming", which is usually understood to mean "anthropogenic climate change". – gerrit Jan 17 '13 at 14:39
  • @user1873 Unless you believe in intelligent design, that is not the result of genetic engineering, but of evolution. Engineering implies a particular design. Evolution is blind. What term would you propose? – gerrit Jan 17 '13 at 15:24

FDA doesn't simply "not allow the food to be labeled free of genetic modification". They are fulfilling their mandate by regulating which advertisements are OK (scientifically backed up) and which are "woo", to use Skeptics' favorite term.

Quoting from your own link, the 3 examples were:

  • The agency warned the dairy industry in 1994 that it could not use “Hormone Free” labeling on milk from cows that are not given engineered hormones, because all milk contains some hormones.

So, they prohibited false advertising. Just what FDA's job is.

  • It has sent a flurry of enforcement letters to food makers, including B&G Foods, which was told it could not use the phrase “GMO-free” on its Polaner All Fruit strawberry spread label because GMO refers to genetically modified organisms and strawberries are produce, not organisms.

OK, this one sounds like pure lawyering, but leaving aside that they are legally/regulatorily correct, as @user1873's answer noted: "Most, if not all, cultivated food crops have been genetically modified". Just because people using terms like "frankenfood" don't understand the concept of genetics, doesn't mean that 100% of crops that you eat were indeed genetically modified from their ancestral species by farmers for millenia of history. They just used much cruder tools/techniques.

  • It told the maker of Spectrum Canola Oil that it could not use a label that included a red circle with a line through it and the words “GMO,” saying the symbol suggested that there was something wrong with genetically engineered food.

This makes sense. You aren't allowed to slander competing products by implying they are somehow bad (which the red circle with a line is a universal symbol of), when you have zero scientific proof of said badness.

  • Your third statement is incorrect. Dona & Arvanitoyannis (2009), Hines (1993), and many others, see references in Section 3 have shown plentiful evidence of harmful effects of genetically engineered food. The latter contains references to 44 studies, many of them peer-reviewed and independent. – gerrit Jan 17 '13 at 12:42
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    @gerrit - "Genetically engineered" food, or "one paper showed harmful effect on rats of one specific food"? I have scanned the paper and found no "plentiful" evidence - most of it is actually pointing the other way. rgBH is not GMO food, so let's not confuse the two the way the paper does. – user4012 Jan 17 '13 at 14:24
  • I'm referring to the report linked with and many others, which collects plentiful evidence. See also this post on Skeptics. Although the evidence is controversial and there is evidence both ways, claiming there is "zero scientific proof" is equally false as claiming it is 100% surely harmful (as some activists do), hence my downvote. – gerrit Jan 17 '13 at 14:31
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    There is evidence that some GMO in some circumstances may be harmful. Even if others have not been shown to be harmful, that doesn't mean that it surely isn't. As long as there may be risks, claiming to be more cautious than competing products is not slander, but an honest way of informing customers. It's also a valid opinion to say that a heavy burden of proof lies with the actor introducing a new technology, so even if new technology X is not shown to be harmful, labelling a product as "free of new technology X" is not slander either. – gerrit Jan 17 '13 at 14:37
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    @gerrit - guess what, there's evidence that some non-artifically-produced-foods in some circumstance may be harmful. Does that mean you should prohibit ALL food? There are risks from EVERYTHING, including foods you eat today. – user4012 Jan 17 '13 at 14:39

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