It’s a privilege to present my Q&A with Silliker, a leading, worldwide provider of food quality, safety and nutritional consulting services. Silliker is one of three subsidiaries of the Mérieux NutriSciences Corporation, along with Biofortis and Bioagri. I was fortunate to tour Silliker’s new Solutions Center in Crete, Illinois at its grand opening this September. It’s an amazing, 71,000 square-foot facility, and the largest laboratory in Silliker’s global network. Special thanks to Patrick Kennedy of Silliker who helped facilitate this feature. I’ll post Part 2 later in the week.
Food Identity Blog: There has been a lot of publicity over California’s ballot proposal that would mandate labeling of food products that contain any GMO ingredients. In this regard, the proposed law would exempt from the labeling requirements:
Food that an independent organization has determined has not been knowingly and intentionally produced from or commingled with genetically engineered seed or genetically engineered food, provided that such determination has been made pursuant to a sampling and testing procedure approved in regulations adopted by the [California Department of Food and Agriculture] ….
What issues and challenges exist for food companies that want to make the determinations set forth in this provision? What challenges do you see for food companies with regard to testing and their internal processes if it wants to sell non-GMO food in light of the proposed law’s zero tolerance for co-mingling?
Silliker: It has been estimated that up to 70 percent of food products sold in grocery stores might contain ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If Proposition 37, the Genetically Engineered Foods Right to Know Act, becomes law, it could have profound implications for the food industry related to labeling, marketing and new product formulation.
For years, the Food and Drug Administration and several highly-regarded public health institutions have maintained that products containing GMOs or genetically modified ingredients, are equivalent in terms of safety to the conventional counterparts. In effect, Proposition 37 would not improve the safety of foods marketed in California, but consumers might perceive the mandatory labeling statement as a type of warning label.
Testing for genetically engineered ingredients and auditing manufacturing facilities are potential options for companies seeking to avoid a mandatory labeling statement. Since GMO ingredients are not recognized as a food safety risk, mandatory pre-market testing of foods for GMOs seems unlikely to occur. Currently, no federal regulations exist in the U.S. to mandate thresholds or testing requirements for genetically engineered material in food.
To control the comingling of GMO derived ingredients with food labeled as GMO-free, independent third-party auditors could inspect manufacturing facilities as is currently done in the case of allergens. Food processors control allergens through programs that monitor production scheduling, sanitation effectiveness, control of rework, storage of allergenic ingredients and inspection of incoming ingredients. An audit of an allergen control program can be conducted [by companies like Silliker] as a stand-alone audit or as an addendum to a more comprehensive audit of GMPs. Testing for the presence of allergens in food products is typically conducted to validate and verify in-plant processes.
Food Identity Blog: What changes have you seen over the past few years in the restaurant industry in light of the increased focus on restaurant menu labeling and the new federal regulations that will likely be finalized in 2013? What are the biggest concerns you’re hearing from restaurants?
Silliker: While some restaurant chains have been very proactive in preparing for the upcoming menu labeling requirements, other companies appear to have lagged behind due to the delayed publication of the final rules.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the controversial health care law (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), which ensured the FDA would move forward with nutrition labeling regulations for “restaurants or similar retail food establishments” as mandated by the law. To advance the regulations, the FDA must first resolve a few issues, including an industry challenge related to the scope of the rules.
The FDA issued proposed regulations for the disclosure of calorie information on restaurant menus (FDA-2011-F-0172) and vending machines (FDA-2011-F-0171) in April 2011. Under the proposed regulations, “restaurants or similar retail food establishments” with 20 or more locations must post calorie information for standard menu items on printed menus, menu boards, and drive-through menus. Upon request, restaurants must provide written nutrition information including: total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, and protein.
Due to concerns about the scope of the regulations, the FDA proposed exemptions for certain establishments, including movie theaters and hotels, which only sell food in support of their primary business. However, retail food trade associations and several members of the U.S. Congress urged the FDA to also provide exemptions for grocery stores. Retailers have suggested the existing state and local laws for menu labeling do not apply to supermarkets. The restaurant industry supports a consistent national approach to menu labeling.
Proactive restaurant companies have prepared for the upcoming regulations through database nutrient calculations and the analytical testing of menu items. In general, the restaurants and other retail food establishments responding to the upcoming rules seem to be most concerned with efforts to reduce calories, fat and sodium in menu offerings.