The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking public comments on the proposed rule to establish the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard mandated by Congress in 2016 — a standard for GE food labeling.
The goal of the standard is to provide a uniform way to offer meaningful disclosure for consumers who want more information about foods produced using genetic engineering (GE or GMO) and to avoid a patchwork system of state or private labels that could be confusing for consumers.
According to The Center for Food Safety (CFS), public comments will be particularly important because the proposal presents a range of alternatives for public comments and makes few decisions, leaving considerable unknowns about its outcome.
For example, instead of requiring clear, on-package labeling in the form of text or a symbol, USDA proposes to allow manufacturers to instead choose to use QR codes, which are encoded images on a package that must be scanned and are intended to substitute for clear, on-package labeling.
Real-time access to the information behind a QR code image requires a smartphone and a reliable broadband connection, technologies often lacking in rural areas. As a result, this labeling option would discriminate against more than 100 million Americans who do not have access to this technology.
Last fall, CFS forced the public disclosure of USDA’s study on the efficacy of this labeling, which showed it would not provide adequate disclosure to millions of Americans. In the study, authors revealed: “Overall, 62 percent of study respondents did not voice challenges that might impact their access to information in a digital link. However, in direct observations of consumers who are interested in accessing the disclosure, researchers observed key technological challenges that prevented nearly all participants from obtaining the information through electronic or digital disclosure methods.”
“USDA should not allow QR codes,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety. “USDA’s own study found that QR codes are inherently discriminatory against one-third of Americans who do not own smartphones, and even more so against rural, low income, and elderly populations or those without access to the internet. USDA should mandate on-package text or symbol labeling as the only fair and effective means of disclosure for GE foods.”
GE Food Labeling: A Rose By Any Other Name
When it comes to on-package text or symbols, USDA proposes to disallow the terms “genetic engineering or GMO,” and use only the term “bioengineered,” or “BE,” despite the fact that genetic engineering and GMO have been the terms used for 30-plus years by consumers, companies and regulators. Many food companies have long used the terms genetic engineered, GE, or GMO, and thousands of products are currently labeled as such (e.g., Non-GMO).
“USDA’s exclusion of the well-established terms, GE and GMO, as options will confuse and mislead consumers, and the agency must instead allow the use of those terms,” said Kimbrell.
CFS says another big question left unanswered by the proposal is whether or not “highly refined,” GE foods will be covered, such as cooking oils, candies, or sodas that have ingredients derived from GE crops, but are in processed form such that in the final product, the GE content may or may not be detectable.
USDA is taking comments on whether or not to include these products, with two differing alternatives including or excluding them. The proposal also seeks comments on how to deal with newer forms of genetic engineering — which often go by different names such as synthetic biology, gene-editing, or CRISPR — and whether or not to include foods produced through them.
“Excluding highly processed GE foods would mean that consumers would be wrongly left in the dark about thousands of GE products,” said CFS’ Science Policy Analyst Bill Freese. “These products, as well as those from newer forms of genetic engineering, must be subject to mandatory labeling if this rule is to be meaningful.”
Other major issues on which USDA is taking comment are what threshold to use for GE content, the timing of compliance, enforcement and record-keeping requirements.
GE Food Labeling: Have Your Say
The proposed rule is open for comment for 60 days. Due to the Congressionally mandated timeline for this rulemaking, the comment period will not be extended, so it is important that anyone interested file comments in a timely manner.
“This rulemaking presents several possible ways to determine what foods will be covered by the final rule and what the disclosure will include and look like,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “We are looking for public input on a number of these key decisions before a final rule is issued later this year.”
Comments can be submitted online through the Federal eRulemaking portal.
Comments can also be filed with the Docket Clerk, 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Room 4543-South, Washington, DC 20250; Fax: 202-690-0338.
The deadline for comments is July 3, 2018.
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Law was enacted by Congress on July 29, 2016. The proposed rule previewed in the May 3, Federal Register.