Agriculture Moves to GMO Food Labeling With Exemptions (via CQ)

The United States moved closer Friday to mandatory labeling of foods that contain genetically modified crops or ingredients with the publication of a draft labeling rule, which uses “bioengineered” in place of the commonly used GMO term.

The proposed rule is the outcome of a multi-year fight between pro mandatory labeling groups that argued consumers have a right to information about the foods they eat and food manufacturers and farm organizations that fought mandatory labeling as scientifically unsound and part of a plan to stigmatize GMO products. Comments are due July 3 with a final rule due July 29.

The resulting federal law (PL 114-216) in 2016 gave partial wins for each side. The law gives a victory to backers of federal mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods, while labeling opponents defeated efforts to require all food companies to put readily readable information on packages. Food companies and farm groups also got a federal prohibition on states writing their own mandatory labeling laws but not the voluntary labeling they sought at the federal level.

The law gives the Agriculture Department the task of establishing the process for disclosing information for foods and ingredients for human consumption produced through bioengineering. The law and the rule do not use the term genetically modified organism, opting instead for the term bioengineered as a more neutral phrase.

The proposed rule gives small food manufacturers — as defined through rule-making — the option of providing information to consumers via websites or telephone numbers. Larger companies have three options for telling consumers if they are buying a GMO food product: a label on packages, a symbol to be developed by USDA or bar codes, or other digital means that consumers can scan with smartphones.

The Environmental Working Group, one of the organizations that pushed for federal labeling, said the rule falls short.

“Consumers deserve a simple disclosure that covers all genetically engineered foods, including sugars, oils and the products of modern biotechnology,” Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement Thursday after USDA announced it was releasing the rule. “They should not have to fumble with their cell phones or only get half the story.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which fought state ballots on mandatory labeling and for a federal ban on such laws, said the option of providing information digitally is beneficial to consumers.

“Digital disclosure by scanning an electronic link on a package is one of the ways to provide the bioengineered ingredient information required by the federal law,” the association said in a statement.

Devil’s in the Details

The proposed rule would exempt from labeling certified organic foods and foods served in restaurants, bars, food stands, cafeterias or ready-to-eat foods sold in stores for consumption at the location or to-go. Milk and meat from animals fed grain from genetically modified crops would be excluded from labeling.

Multi-ingredient foods that contain genetically modified ingredients that are not the predominant ingredients would not be labeled. The draft rule offers an example of a canned ham in genetically modified corn syrup as not requiring labeling because the ham is the main ingredient.

The rule also would define very small food manufacturers as those with annual receipts of less than $2.5 million and exempt them from labeling requirements, but the Agriculture Department also is seeking public reaction to setting the revenue threshold at either $500,000 or $5 million.

The public is asked to weigh in on the Agriculture Department’s plan to adopt “without further interpretation on what bioengineering means” the definition of bioengineering included in the 2016 law.

The law defines bioengineered foods as those containing genetic material that has been modified through DNA techniques and modifications that “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.’’ The definition is unclear on whether it applies to ingredients or crops produced through newer techniques such as gene editing.

Much of the draft rule offers the public several options to consider and to offer comment on.

For example, the public is asked to comment on potential exemptions for:

  • Food with an ingredient that contains a bioengineered substance that is inadvertent or technically unavoidable and accounts for no more than 5 percent of the specific ingredient by weight.
  • Food with an ingredient that contains a bioengineered substance that is inadvertent or technically unavoidable, and accounts for no more than 0.9 percent of the specific ingredient by weight.
  • Food in which a manufacturer has decided to use a bioengineered substance as long as it is not more than 5 percent of the total weight of the product.
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