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
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
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
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 2001 Wall Street Journal