Overview: Workshop on Labeling of Biotechnology Products

Peter E. Dunn

Purdue University Biotechnology Institute
1158 Entomology Hall
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana 47907-1158

[published February 1994]

After the conclusion of the NABC 5 meeting, approximately 30 participants stayed on in West Lafayette for an additional day to participate in an optional workshop on Labeling of Biotechnology Products, held on Saturday, June 5, 1993. The workshop was sponsored jointly by the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council (NABC), the Indiana Business Modernization and Technology Corporation, and Purdue’s Office of Agricultural Biotechnology (now the Purdue University Biotechnology Institute).

Food safety and the consumer’s desire to make an informed choice in selecting foods are critical issues for federal and state officials with oversight responsibility, for producers of biotechnology-derived foods and for consumers. The goals of the Workshop were to review the requirements of existing statutes regulating labeling of food products, to identify issues of concern to consumers and food producers regarding labeling of biotechnology-derived foods, and to formulate recommendations to guide development of national policy on the need for consumer information concerning foods produced through biotechnology. As it turned out, both the timing and the topic for the workshop were particularly fortuitous, as it allowed a focus on issues and questions raised in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) April 28, 1993 request for information and data on food labeling for foods derived from new plant varieties [Federal Register 58 (80): 25837-25841 (1993)].

The first part of the Workshop program consisted of invited presentations by three distinguished plenary speakers. The lead-off speaker, Edward L. Korwek, an attorney from Hogan & Hartson, a Washington, DC law firm, spoke on the Current Status of Food Labeling. His presentation was structured around a review of the food labeling requirements of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act administered by the FDA.

Susan K. Harlander, Director, Dairy Foods Research & Development for Land O’Lakes, was next on the program and spoke on Unique Characteristics of Some Biotechnology Products. A key message from this presentation was that while many products of biotechnology are identical to materials currently in use, other products produced through genetic engineering may differ from current foods in a variety of ways.

The final speaker, Christine M. Bruhn, Director of the Center for Consumer Research, University of California, Davis, spoke on What Consumers Want to Know About Biotechnology. From her review of the results of a recent survey, it was clear that consumers do not feel that sufficient information is available to make an informed choice about specific biotechnology products.

Workshop participants then divided into two workgroups. One group, chaired by Rosetta L. Newsome (Director, Scientific Affairs, Institute of Food Technologists), discussed Biotechnology Product Labels, and the other, chaired by Marshall A. Martin (Director, Center for Agricultural Policy and Technology Assessment, Purdue University), discussed Consumer Information.

This NABC Occasional Paper will provide for the reader who could not attend the Workshop a series of formal papers summarizing the content of the three plenary speakers’ presentations, and a summary of the issues and recommendations generated by the Workshop participants. While it is not possible to recreate fully the lively dialogue, the probing questions and the inevitable honest disagreement over both issues and recommendations, or to do justice to the thoughtful contributions of all participants, I hope that this brief occasional paper presents an accurate summary of the Workshop’s conclusions.

I wish to thank the Workshop’s sponsors for their generous support; the speakers, chairpersons and participants for their thoughtful contributions during the Workshop and their assistance in generating the contents of this occasional paper; and the NABC staff for editing, formatting and publishing the final manuscript. A summary of the Workshop’s recommendations was sent to the FDA to assist in their efforts to establish policies and regulations on the labeling of biotechnology-derived foods.