FDA Must Say if Labels Can Call GMOs 'Natural'

     (CN) - A federal judge asked the Food & Drug Administration to advise whether food manufacturers can label foods as "natural" when they contain genetically modified ingredients.
     The request from U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers puts a six-month stay in the proposed class action against Irving-based Gruma Corp., which sells tortillas, guacamole and other products under the brand name Mission.
     "Under these circumstances, deference to the FDA's regulatory authority is the appropriate course," the Thursday opinion states.
     Lead plaintiff Elizabeth Cox had sued the company in San Francisco over the "all natural" on products that use corn grown from bioengineered, genetically modified seeds.
     She seeks damages under the California unfair competition law, false advertising law and the Consumers Legal Remedies Act.
     "The FDA has regulatory authority over food labeling," the opinion states. "There are no FDA rules requiring that products containing [genetically-modified organisms] or bioengineered ingredients be labeled as such. The FDA has issued nonbinding industry guidance indicating that it 'is not aware of any data or other information that would form a basis for concluding that the fact that a food or its ingredients was produced using bioengineering is a material fact that must be disclosed.'"
     Though Judge Rogers agreed with the plaintiff's argument that there is a "gaping hole" in regulations regarding "natural" claims and GMOs, she said there is no direct regulation by the FDA on the term and no requirement that a company disclose on labeling whether GMOs are included.
     "The parties appear to be in agreement that the FDA has not addressed, even informally, the question of whether foods containing GMO or bioengineered ingredients may be labeled 'natural' or 'all natural,' or whether GMO or bioengineered ingredients would be considered 'artificial or synthetic,'" the opinion states. "However, plaintiff wrongly concludes that there is no agency charged with determining whether food labels may properly state that GMO products can be labeled 'all natural.' The [Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act] and [Nutritional Labeling and Education Act] unquestionably and squarely give that authority to the FDA."