Farmers, food companies differ over GMO/BE labeling
The coalition of farm groups and agribusiness that convinced congress to pass a national biotech labeling law in 2016 has split apart in comments to the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Marketing Service on how to implement the law.
In comments filed last week, farm groups said refined ingredients such as oils and sugars that are derived from genetic modification should not be included in mandatory labeling, while food companies said they should be included
In addition, the farm groups said USDA should reject food companies’ proposals to allow voluntary labeling of ingredients if USDA does not require mandatory labeling.
But not all farm groups signed onto the statement and the food company organizations also emphasized different elements of the labeling regime in their comments.
One set of comments was submitted by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association, the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Cotton Council and the U.S. Canola Association.
That coalition said the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s proposed rule to implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, required under a law Congress passed in 2016, “should exclude refined products from the definition of a BE (bioengineered) food” because the presence of genetic modification/bioengineering is undetectable.
“Creating any presumption, even unintentionally, that refined ingredients produced from BE crops are different or less desirable than their conventional counterparts is not supported by science, is contrary to the intent of the NBFDS, imposes a costly and discriminatory burden on the industry, and has harmful economic impacts throughout the supply chain.
“It also creates consumer confusion and increases consumer prices for identical products. Excluding refined products from the definition of a BE food is supported by numerous scientific studies demonstrating the absence of modified genetic material from refined ingredients,” the groups said.
The coalition said its groups “represent the majority of agriculture interests in the United States. Our associations represent around 193 million acres of row crops (canola, corn, cotton, soy, and sugarbeets) and nearly 6 million farm and rural families through the AFBF.”
The National Milk Producers Federation submitted its own comments emphasizing that food from animals fed genetically modified feed should not be labeled as genetically modified or bioengineered.
“Food labels should not be used to scare consumers on purchasing decisions, especially with labels that suggest a distinction in which there is no real difference,” said NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern.
“It is simply wrong to try to manipulate consumers through unfounded fears, and it’s not fair to the other food companies that don’t engage in such dishonest marketing.”
“Some food companies are implying that their products derived from animals that have not been fed bioengineered grain are better or safer. That is untruthful, that is false, that is misleading,” said NMPF. “USDA should express its disdain for such contemptuous and wrongful marketing practices in the strongest way possible.”
The beet sugar industry said in its own comments it is opposed to “a voluntary labeling program that would allow on-package labeling for non-BE Food products, such as beet sugar, with text such as ‘derived from’ or ‘sourced from’ a bioengineered crop.
The beet industry maintains that “any such ‘derived from’ text was expressly rejected by congress and is misleading to the consumer because it fails to fully explain that while a product may be derived from a bioengineered crop the food itself is not bioengineered.”
The National Farmers Union, another general farm organization, did not join the coalition, and did not submit comments.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition submitted comments against the proposed rule. It describes itself as representing groups that work with farmers “involved in certified organic, sustainable, non-genetically engineered, and farm identity-preserved products, systems and supply chains that are impacted by the regulation of genetically engineered (GE) organisms.”
NSAC commented that the proposed rule “fails to ensure a robust, meaningful, and value-neutral labeling standard that will provide confidence to producers and consumers alike.”
NSAC said USDA should allow the terms “GE” and “Genetically Modified Organism” to be used interchangeably with “bioengineered” and “BE” because they are “more readily understood by consumers and the industry.”
NSAC also said that USDA should adopt “a symbol that is clear and value-neutral … not be easily confused with any existing symbols (such as the USDA Organic seal), and should not convey any positive or negative attributes, unlike the current proposed symbols.”
But the Grocery Manufacturers Association said: “The disclosure of refined ingredients in foods, such as oils and sugars derived from bioengineered crops, should be mandatory under the final rule.”
“GMA does not expect that consumers will understand or believe the concept that an ingredient starting from a bioengineered ear of corn is not bioengineered after it has been refined.
“To the contrary, we believe consumers will expect to know if a product contains an ingredient that was sourced from a bioengineered crop regardless of whether the refining process removes the modified genetic material
“Not including refined ingredients in the definition of bioengineered food will undermine the intent of the act. It will confuse consumers, erode trust in brands and the technology and encourage further polarizing activism about what is perceived to be information ‘hidden’ by brands, the food industry, institutions and policy makers.”
The American Frozen Food Institute said it “strongly supports mandatory disclosure for foods that are or contain ingredients derived from two bioengineered crops, including those foods or ingredients that have been processed in a way that removes the genetic material that has been modified through recombinant DNA (rDNA) techniques (referred to in these comments as ‘the modified DNA’ or ‘rDNA’).”
AFFI added it “recognizes there will be some foods that do not meet the definition for ‘bioengineered food’ but for which companies will want to make voluntary statements about the sourcing or agricultural production methods.”
“We ask that AMS establish in the text of the regulation a mechanism for making such disclosure statements by providing a non-exhaustive list of examples of appropriate statements that could be used, such as ‘sourced from a bioengineered crop’ or ‘includes soybean oil derived from bioengineered soybeans.’”
The Food Marketing Institute said: “In developing our findings, we heard directly from customers and the feedback was consistent with our experiences in stores — that there is an increasing number of grocery customers who want more information about their food, and with regard to biotechnology specifically, they support disclosure of whether their food contains or is derived from bioengineered crops.”
“Importantly, this desire for information is not related to food safety or nutrition concerns, but merely because customers ‘just want to know exactly what goes into the food I eat.’”
Whatever decision USDA makes about mandatory labeling, FMI said, “In order to preserve the ability for food manufacturers and retailers to disclose information above and beyond that is required under the NBFDS, FMI supports a rigorous voluntary disclosure option linked to the BE Source List.”
“Specifically, for products that do not meet the definition of ‘bioengineered food’ but that contain an ingredient derived from the BE Source List, manufacturers and retailers should be permitted to make voluntary disclosures using phraseology that is distinctly different from the mandatory disclosure language, provided that any such claims are truthful, not misleading, and otherwise consistent with applicable federal law.”
SNAC International (formerly the Snack Food Association) said: ”ingredients derived from bioengineered crops should be subject to disclosure, regardless of whether the ingredient or finished food “contains” detectable levels of modified DNA.
But SNAC added, “In the event AMS rejects our request and exempts refined ingredients from the definition of bioengineered food if they do not contain modified DNA, AMS should establish a mechanism for voluntary disclosure of foods and ingredients that do not meet the definition of ‘BE food,’ by providing in the text of the regulation a number of examples of voluntary claims that would be neither false nor misleading, such as ‘Ingredients sourced from bioengineered crops’ or similar language.”