By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A federal judge has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to determine whether food made with genetically engineered crops can be labeled as "natural."
The request springs from a lawsuit against the Gruma Corp. that accuses the company of falsely labeling its Mission tortilla chips as "natural" even though they contain genetically engineered corn.
The plaintiff, Elizabeth Cox, seeks class action status for the case, which would allow other consumers to join the litigation, as well as at least $5 million in compensation for "unfair and deceptive practices."
"Genetically modified corn products contain genes and/or DNA that would not normally be in them, and are thus not natural, thereby causing the product to fail to be 'All Natural,'" the complaint said.
U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland, Calif., has decided to stay the litigation for six months and refer the question of "natural" labeling of genetically engineered ingredients to the FDA.
While the agency has issued guidance that doesn't require manufacturers to label genetically engineered foods, it has never offered any opinion about whether such ingredients are considered "artificial or synthetic," the judge said.
The FDA's policy has been that foods can be labeled as "natural" as long as they're free of artificial or synthetic substances that wouldn't normally be expected to found in the product, Gonzalez Rogers said.
"Under these circumstances, deference to the FDA's regulatory authority is the appropriate course," she said.
Gruma Corp., based in Monterrey, Mexico, had asked the judge to dismiss the case, arguing that genetic modification occurs through all forms of plant breeding and thus doesn't disqualify a food from being "natural."
"Bioengineering, as the FDA has recognized, is simply the latest in a long series of human-directed plant breeding techniques, stretching back over millennia," the company said in a court document.
The plaintiff's main disagreement is with the FDA's policies, not with Gruma in particular, so she should petition the agency for change instead of suing a food manufacturer, the document said.
Beyond these issues, Cox lacks standing to litigate against Gruma because the company has already refunded her more than $200 for previous purchases of its tortilla chips, the document said.