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FDA Tries to Intimidate Companies Using GMO-Free Labels

FDA Tries to Intimidate Companies Using GMO-Free Labels

FDA Warns of Misleading Labels On Genetic Modification in Foods
By Scott Kilman
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

12/20/2001
The Wall Street Journal
B9

The Food and Drug Administration, trying to douse one of the hottest trends
in food retailing, is warning Hain Celestial Group Inc. and five other
natural-foods companies that they are misleading consumers with labels
touting products as free of genetic modification.

The non-GMO label -- the initials stand for "genetically modified organisms"
-- is on hundreds of food products. Virtually unknown in North America just
three years ago, the label is materializing on everything from pasta and
breakfast cereal to baby food and jam.

The label is popular because repeated surveys show that the majority of U.S.
consumers want to know about the presence of genetically modified
ingredients, apparently so that they can choose whether to avoid them.

But the FDA letters, issued on Nov. 29, reflect the growing concern of
agency officials that some marketers might be trying to play to the public's
worries about an unfamiliar technology -- which that FDA has declared is
safe.

"We want to stop misleading statements," said Christine Taylor, director of
the FDA office that supervises label claims.

It's far from clear, however, exactly what a food company can legally say
about its efforts to avoid biotechnology. The agency is still wading through
55,000 comments on the wording guidance it wants to issue to companies.

Among other things, the FDA wants to stop companies from claiming products
are free of genetically modified ingredients. Regulators fear consumers
equate such a claim with a healthier product, much as dieters seek out
fat-free products.

The FDA also doubts that food companies can make a non-GMO claim with
absolute certainty. The Wall Street Journal, for a page-one article on April
5, had a food laboratory analyze products that bore labels claiming that
none of the ingredients were genetically modified. Of the 20 products
tested, 16 contained evidence of genetic material used to modify plants.

The FDA complained in its letter that some Hain products -- such as Bearitos
tortilla chips -- are labeled as "pure" with the claim that they don't
contain genetically engineered ingredients. Hain, Uniondale, N.Y., didn't
return phone calls seeking comment on the FDA letter, which asks the company
to explain how it intends to comply with branding laws that prohibit
misleading labels.

Some companies quickly backpedaled after receiving the FDA letter.

Healthy Times Inc., a closely held maker of natural baby food, will probably
drop its non-GMO label. "We have a natural philosophy, so we avoid GMOs,"
said Richard Prescott, who runs the small Poway, Calif., company with his
wife. "But we aren't big enough to the fight the FDA," he said.

U.S. Mills Inc., Needham, Mass., said it will try to reword the label on its
Erewhon brand of breakfast cereal and move it to a less conspicuous spot on
the box. "We need the information [on the box] or people will constantly
call us," said Charles T. Verde, president of the company. "The FDA is way
out of line on this."

The FDA letters also were sent to Spectrum Organic Products Inc. in
Petaluma, Calif.; B&G Foods Inc., Parsippany, N.J.; and Van's International
Foods, Torrance, Calif
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

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