Is a Bioengineered Food “100% Natural”?

September 11, 2011

By Ricardo Carvajal

That question is presented in class actions recently filed against ConAgra Foods, Inc. in California and New York.  The complaint in the California case alleges that ConAgra’s labeling and advertising of Wesson Oils as “100% natural” violates California law because the oils are “derived from plants grown from GMO seeds,” and such plants are not “natural.”  In support of their position, plaintiffs cite Monsanto Company’s definition of “genetically modified organism (GMO)” (“Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs…”), as well as the World Health Organization’s definition of that term (“organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally…”).  The complaint in the New York case includes similar allegations.  We note that FDA disfavors use of the term “genetically modified organism,” preferring instead the term “bioengineered foods” to describe foods derived from plant varieties that are developed using rDNA technology.

Surprisingly, FDA does not appear to have publicly addressed the question of whether a bioengineered food can properly be labeled as “natural” under the agency’s policy on the use of that term (FDA interprets “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there).  For its part, ConAgra maintains that “[p]laintiff’s claims do not depend on the FDA’s definition of ‘natural.’”  ConAgra contends in part that, under FDA’s regulatory framework for bioengineered foods, “[n]o special labeling requirements apply to foods made from bioengineered plants because those foods are not meaningfully different from other foods.  If a label is appropriate for food made from plants developed by older methods of genetic selection, then that same label – with each of the representations it makes, whether about the name of the product, the ingredients it contains or whether it is natural, artificial or an imitation – is appropriate for the food made from bioengineered plants too.”  

The broader issue of GMO labeling could gain greater visibility as the result of an upcoming 2-week march on Washington, DC planned by a number of consumer groups, businesses, and trade associations who assert that bioengineered foods should be labeled as such.  The marchers’ desired outcome would require new federal legislation – a doubtful prospect heading into 2012.