Only days after President Obama signed into law the first federal legislation requiring food manufacturers to disclose GMO ingredients on packaged food labels, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (ARS) announced it would begin the process of drafting rules to implement the measure. The controversial bill has reinvigorated battles between consumer groups and food manufacturers, triggered a bitter rift within the organic food industry, and puts USDA, which is charged with implementing the law, into potential conflict with FDA, which has sole statutory authority over food labeling.
“USDA has established a working group to develop a timeline for rulemaking and to ensure an open and transparent process for effectively establishing this new program, which will increase consumer confidence and understanding of the foods they buy, and avoid uncertainty for food companies and farmers,” the agency announced on a new website devoted to the issue. “We are committed to providing multiple opportunities for engagement.” The Foreign Agricultural Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service are participating in the working group. The USDA must create the regulations within two years.
Obama signed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law (PL 114-216) on July 29, 2016 after the Senate and House had passed the measure (S 764) earlier that month. The law supersedes and bars any similar state laws, permits companies to use an electronic link, such as a QR code, for disclosure rather than a text label, and carries no penalties for non-compliance. Many consumer, environmental, and anti-GMO groups contend the law is too lax, and some accused lawmakers of being in the pocket of Monsanto and in collusion with big agribusiness.
The short, 14-page bill bypassed typical congressional committee hearings and legislative markup, having been fast-tracked by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). They did so, in part, because Vermont’s GMO label disclosure law, the nation’s first, was set to go into effect on July 1, 2016 and many in the food industry, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), had warned of potential disruptions from differing requirements mandated by disparate state laws.
The federal legislation “will open a new era for transparency in ingredient information for consumers by requiring disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients for families in every state across the nation,” says Pamela G. Bailey, GMA president and CEO. “Its consistent national standard is far better than a costly and confusing patchwork of different state labeling.”
The new legislation pre-empts Vermont’s mandatory on-package labeling law, which she says “already has left consumers in the state with fewer products on the shelves and higher compliance costs for small businesses.”
Prior to the Senate vote, Stabenow said “this bipartisan bill ensures that consumers and families throughout the United States will have access, for the first time ever, to information about their food through a mandatory, nationwide label for food products with GMOs.”
“It certainly is not perfect, but it is the best bill possible under these difficult circumstances we find ourselves in today,” Roberts added.
Critics, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), said the bill’s loopholes and allowance for smartphone scanning rather than printed disclosure would limit its effectiveness and create confusion. “When parents go to the store and purchase food, they have the right to know what is in the food their kids are going to be eating,” Sanders said on the Senate floor.
What’s in the Law
The law defines bioengineered food as that containing “genetic material that has been modified through in-vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” Food derived from an animal is not considered to be bioengineered solely because the animal consumed feed produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered substance (such as GMO corn or soybeans). Meat, poultry, or eggs would need to be labeled only if “the most prominent ingredient” would independently be subject to the labeling requirement.