GMO Labeling: Practical Application with Citrus Greening

GMO Labeling: Practical Application with Citrus Greening

November 16, 2016
RegulatoryRetail Industry Insights

In light of your role in consumer education, Southern Gardens Citrus is working to keep all retail dietitians informed on citrus greening, a devastating bacterial disease widely considered to be the most serious threat ever faced by the Florida (and U.S.) citrus industry. Huanglongbing (also known as HLB, or greening) is a disease that affects the overall health of the citrus tree and the resulting production of citrus fruit. Although greening does not present public health risks to consumers of citrus products, the disease spreads rapidly through citrus groves, causes irreversible damage to citrus fruits, and is ultimately fatal to infected trees. To date, upwards of 90 percent of Florida’s citrus acreage has already been infected by greening. This disease threatens the survival of the Florida citrus industry and could sharply reduce or even eliminate citrus juices and fruit from the shelves at your retailer.

While there is no known cure or treatment for greening at this time, there is growing consensus within the research community and citrus industry that the ultimate solution lies in novel genetic engineering technologies. Southern Gardens Citrus’ current biotechnology research on greening disease is focused on use of naturally occurring spinach proteins that appear to enhance the tolerance of citrus trees to greening. Notably, these spinach proteins are already in the food supply, consumed frequently, and have a long history of safe use.  

The entire process associated with this new technology -- from laboratory research and field trials to regulatory approvals and commercialization -- is now well positioned to help the industry overcome greening disease and ensure that citrus fruits and products continue to remain available in the future. Under these circumstances, it is especially critical to ensure that information confirming the well-established safety of foods produced with biotechnology is readily available and accessible to all consumers of citrus products. Southern Gardens Citrus and other companies leading research in this area are taking necessary steps to provide this important assurance to the public.

How can this information be effectively communicated to our customers? A new federal labeling mandate for genetically engineered food ingredients may help facilitate this effort. In July 2016, President Obama signed into law a bill directing mandatory labeling requirements for “bioengineered foods” on a nationwide basis. This new law defines “bioengineering” to mean a food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro rDNA techniques and which “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” In authorizing USDA to administer the new requirements, it also requires the Agency to determine the threshold levels of a bioengineered substance that will subject a food to the new labeling requirements. Under this proposed new law, foods that are below threshold levels of genetically engineered components may not be “bioengineered,” even if they are produced using processes that involve biotechnology at an earlier stage.  

Importantly, this new legislation helps to promote labeling consistency throughout the United States by establishing federal preemption on food labeling, which precludes individual states from enacting their own labeling requirements for bioengineered foods. As a consequence, Vermont’s 2014 labeling law, which would have required unique labeling for food sold in Vermont that was produced either entirely or partially with genetic engineering, is now preempted by federal law.  

Among other key aspects, the new federal law also provides manufacturers with a variety of options for meeting the new labeling requirements, including use of text, symbols, or electronic digital links. Although the law requires USDA to establish the disclosure standards that will be required for bioengineered foods, it does not mandate use of the term “GMO.” Reflecting the solid scientific consensus on the safety of food biotechnology, USDA is also prohibited from treating a bioengineered food as less safe than a non-bioengineered counterpart under the law solely because of the use of bioengineering.  

The USDA must establish the appropriate rules and regulations within two (2) years of the law’s enactment, with opportunities for public comment expected throughout the rulemaking process. USDA has already issued an initial policy to ensure consistency between the new labeling requirements and the Agency’s existing regulations under the National Organic Program. As Southern Gardens moves forward with its innovative work against citrus greening disease, we hope that USDA’s new requirements will contribute to an environment that supports efforts by manufacturers to consistently and efficiently communicate science-based information about their products in a manner that further enhances consumer confidence in food safety and integrity.    

In the next newsletter article, we will examine and highlight the impact of this disease at the grower level.