Labels describing food products as "Non-GMO" are a no-go for the Food and Drug Administration pursuant to new guidance released on labeling food with or without genetically altered plant ingredients.

Although most headlines discussed the agency's grant of its first approval for a genetically engineered animal intended for food, the AquAdvantage Salmon, the FDA also released two guidances: draft guidance for labeling of genetically engineered Atlantic salmon and final guidance for manufacturers wishing to voluntarily label their products as containing genetically engineered (GE) or non-GE sources.

Importantly, the agency did not mandate that manufacturers disclose the use of genetically modified ingredients, and held to its position that GE products are not materially different from non-engineered foods. Instead, it emphasized that its main concern "is that such voluntary labeling be truthful and not misleading."

The agency did set forth certain rules regarding terminology. The term "Non-GMO," short for non-genetically modified organisms, conveys an overly broad and inaccurate meaning when applied to food products, the FDA said, as most foods do not contain entire organisms. Instead, the agency pushed for the use of label terminology such as "Not bioengineered" or "This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered."

"In general, an accurate statement about whether a food was not produced using bioengineering is one that provides information in a context that clearly refers to bioengineering technology," the FDA explained.

The agency provided examples of potentially misleading labeling. A statement could be deceptive when evaluated in the context of the entire label, such as a claim that the product "does not contain bioengineered soybean oil" for a product that is made largely of flour derived from GE corn and a small amount of non-GE soybean oil. Such a statement may require a careful qualification "in order to ensure that consumers understand its significance," the FDA cautioned.

Also problematic are claims such as "None of the ingredients in this food are genetically engineered" when some of the ingredients, like salt, are incapable of being processed through genetic engineering. Similarly, a statement that suggests or implies that a food product or ingredient is "safer, more nutritious, or otherwise has different attributes" than comparable foods because it was not GE may be false or misleading, the FDA said.

"For example, the labeling of a bag of specific type of frozen vegetables that states they were 'not produced through modern biotechnology' could be misleading if, in addition to this statement, the labeling contains statements or vignettes that suggest or imply that, as a result of not being produced through modern biotechnology, such vegetables are safer, more nutritious, or have different attributes than other foods solely because the food was not produced using modern biotechnology," the agency wrote.

As for products that contain both GE and non-GE ingredients, the FDA said accurate labels should provide information in a context that refers to bioengineering technology, such as "Genetically engineered." Where a multi-ingredient food contains a bioengineered ingredient, claims should be worded to address the ingredient and not the food as a whole, the agency added. It suggested a statement like "This product contains laurate canola from bioengineered canola that may be used as an alternative to palm kernel oil."

The FDA said it has no plans to take action against labels making use of the "GMO" terminology, but cautioned advertisers that the use of terms like "GMO free" or "Non-GMO" could face false advertising challenges from consumers. It recommended that "manufacturers not use food labeling claims that indicate that a food is 'free' of ingredients derived through the use of biotechnology."

To read the FDA guidance, click here.

Why it matters: The FDA's guidance leaves manufacturers with a choice: they can decide not to disclose the use of genetically engineered ingredients in their products and avoid the headache of using the proper labeling terminology. Or they can opt for voluntary labeling and take a careful read of the final guidance to ensure their claims are not false or misleading.