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Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods. Pat Byrne Department of Soil & Crop Sciences Colorado State University. Labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food may be an issue in Colorado in 2002. Genetically engineered.

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Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods

Pat Byrne

Department of Soil & Crop Sciences

Colorado State University


Labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food may be an issue in Colorado in 2002.

Genetically engineered

  • Sen. Ron Tupa (Boulder) may re-introduce a mandatory labeling bill in the Colorado legislature during the current session.
  • A citizens initiative effort is planned for summer of 2002.

US adoption of transgenic crops:

the big 3





Percent of acreage











Other transgenic crops on the market

  • Canola
  • Papaya
  • Summer squash
  • Potato (but not for long)
  • Tomato (1995-97, then withdrawn)
  • Sweet corn (approved, but not grown)



Impact at the supermarket

Although the number of GE crops is small, the impact is huge: an estimated 60-70% of processed foods in grocery stores include at least one GE component (mostly corn or soy).


Pro-labeling argument

  • Consumers have a right to know what's in their food, especially concerning products for which health and environmental concerns have been raised.
  • Anti-labeling response
  • Labels on GE food imply a warning about health effects, whereas no significant differences between GE and conventional foods have been detected.

Pro-labeling argument

  • Surveys have indicated that a majority of Americans support mandatory labeling.
  • Anti-labeling response
  • Most surveys have not included information on the cost of labeling. A recent Canadian study estimated a 9-10% increase in food prices.

Survey results from Colorado

  • (Drs. Sue Hine and Maria Loureiro)
  • 437 supermarket shoppers in four Front Range communities were surveyed in fall of 2000.
  • 78% supported labeling of GE foods.
  • However, consumers were not willing to pay a premium for labeling.
  • Those most likely to favor mandatory labeling were female, older, and considered themselves less well informed about biotechnology.

Pro-labeling argument

  • For religious or ethical reasons many Americans want to avoid eating animal products, including animal DNA.
  • Anti-labeling response
  • No plant products currently on the market include animal DNA.
  • Those who wish to buy non-GE food already have an option: to purchase certified organic foods, which cannot include GE ingredients.

Anti-labeling argument

  • The U.S. food system infrastructure (storage, transportation, and processing facilities) could not currently accommodate the need for segregation of GE and non-GE products.
  • Pro-labeling response
  • 22 countries have announced plans to institute some form of mandatory labeling. The U.S. could follow their lead in handling the logistics of product separation.

Anti-labeling argument

  • If labeling is done at all, it should be legislated at the federal level, given our national / international food supply.
  • Pro-labeling response
  • Sometimes issues need to be started at the state or local levels, before the federal government pays attention, e.g., standards for certification of organic foods.

Issues in labeling of GE food

  • Mandatory or voluntary labeling?
  • Mandatory for both GE and non-GE foods
  • Voluntary for both GE and non-GE
  • Mandatory for GE, voluntary for non-GE

Issues in labeling of GE food

  • What constitutes a GE food product?
  • Which technologies included as GE?

Generally, limited to transgenic techniques, but some legislation might include breeding techniques in use for decades.

  • All ingredients or just major ingredients?

Issues in labeling of GE food

  • What threshold level -- 0% 1%? 5%?

Different countries have adopted different values.

  • Products of livestock fed transgenic feed?

No evidence of transgenic DNA or protein has been found in meat, milk, or eggs.


Issues in labeling of GE food

  • What language to use on a label?

Genetically modified

Genetically engineered


Product of biotechnology

Product of modern biotechnology

May contain genetically engineered ingredients?

Information on why genetic engineering was

done, e.g., for insect resistance?


Issues in labeling of GE food

  • How to verify claims?

Content-based verification: Test for physical presence of foreign DNA or protein.

Analogy: vitamin content of foods.

Process-based verification: Require detailed record-keeping of seed source, field location, harvest, transport, and storage.

Analogy: shade-grown coffee.



Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods

Colorado Citizens’ Initiative, 2000

  • GE organism is one that has been altered at the molecular or cellular level by means including but not limited to recombinant DNA techniques.
  • If any ingredient is > 0.1% GE material.
  • If GE inputs were used in production.
  • Livestock products if animal was fed GE material or treated with GE hormones or drugs.

Current FDA policy requires that GE food be labeled if

  • It has a significantly different nutritional property.
  • It contains an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present.
  • It contains a toxicant at levels beyond acceptable limits.

For other cases, FDA proposes voluntary labeling

X Virtually all commercial foods have been genetically modified.

Not genetically modified

X “Free” implies zero, which is difficult to verify.

GMO free


Proposed FDA policy for voluntary labeling

We do not use ingredients produced using biotechnology.

This product contains cornmeal that was produced using biotechnology.


Proposed FDA policy for voluntary labeling

This product contains high oleic acid soybean oil from soybeans developed using biotechnology to decrease the amount of saturated fat.

“High oleic acid soybean oil” is mandatory. The rest is voluntary, and considered acceptable by FDA.


Proposed FDA policy for voluntary labeling

X May be misleading

This cantaloupe was not genetically engineered.


This cantaloupe, like all cantaloupes on the market, was not genetically engineered.


For more information on GE crops: