Industry groups react to GMO labeling rule
Without fanfare, the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Marketing Service on May 3 released the long-awaited rule on the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.
The rule would allow on-package labeling, symbols or the use of digital labeling to identify products with GMO ingredients.
Defenders of genetic modification praised the rule, although they reserved the right to comment on it, while skeptics said the labeling will not be clear enough.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a 60-day comment period through July 3, but noted it will not be extended because Congress said it should go into effect by July 29.
“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,” Perdue said. “We are looking for public input on a number of these key decisions before a final rule is issued later this year.”
On behalf of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food that backed the bill establishing the labeling law, the National Corn Growers Association said, “The proposed rule published today by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is a critical step towards establishing a National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard by the July 29, 2018, deadline.”
“The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food remains committed to a standard that gives consumers access to information about the food they purchase; ensures that farmers continue to have the tools they need to feed a growing world population; and provides certainty to food manufacturers, retailers and others in the supply chain.
“Over 1,100 national, state, and local organizations representing the food and agriculture value chain supported enactment of the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act, because it prevented a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws, that would have cost U.S. consumers, farmers and manufacturers billions of dollars.
“Given the importance of ensuring the final rule is in place by the statutory deadline, the coalition will be analyzing the proposed rule and developing coordinated food and agricultural industry comments over the next 60 days. The coalition looks forward to providing the department with input that reflects the needs of consumers, farmers and the rest of the food value chain.”
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said “The proposed National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard … will give consumers a valuable resource for making informed decisions about food.”
“Just as important, USDA is doing this the right way, providing consumers access to information about their food purchases while also allowing farmers and ranchers to embrace the sustainable tools of modern agriculture.
“The proposed rule is based on sharing factual information, rather than emotional scare tactics. Science proves that GMOs are safe, and this national proposal strikes a much-needed balance compared to the chaos that would come from a patchwork of state-level labeling initiatives.
“America’s farmers and ranchers respect the need for consumer choice and we take immense pride in producing safe, healthful food. From both standpoints, this proposal is fair and ensures that food facts win the day over food hype.
“Bold leadership from Agriculture Secretary Perdue on this vital matter has helped ensure transparency and choice built on the clear foundation of sound science. We will further analyze the proposal and comment on areas that need improvement, but this proposal is a positive first step in a process that is important to farmers and consumers alike,” Duvall said.
The National Grain and Feed Association specifically noted its support for USDA proposing to grant a tolerance before labeling is required for inadvertent or technically unavoidable bioengineered ingredients contained in food and beverage products.
The NGFA noted that a 5 percent tolerance for biotech presence exists within USDA’s National Organic Standard, and with many other countries, including Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam.
Lack of a realistic threshold for disclosure would substantially increase compliance costs, disrupt supply chains and raise food costs, the NGFA said.
The NGFA also commended USDA for proposing reliance on “customary and reasonable” business records that traditionally are maintained as being sufficient for documenting compliance with the rule.
NGFA noted that this presumably would include contracts, purchase specifications and confirmations. Doing otherwise would create “complex, cumbersome and extremely costly” recordkeeping requirements within the supply chain that could cause companies to shun the handling or use of safe, wholesome and nutritious bioengineered ingredients in their products, the NGFA said.
Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the Just Label It campaign, an organic group, said, “It will take more than symbols and sugar-coating food labels to gain the consumers’ trust.”
“While we’re glad the process is finally moving forward, we’re deeply disappointed that today’s draft rule does not clearly require that all genetically engineered ingredients are disclosed.
“Nor does the draft rule address the needs of consumers who don’t have expensive phones or live in rural places with poor cell service. Consumers and congress expected much more when congress passed a national GMO disclosure law in 2016.
“Just Label It will rally our supporters to ensure that USDA requires disclosure of all genetically engineered ingredients and that all consumers will have the ability to know what is in their food, regardless of where they live. This is not what congress intended when congress preempted Vermont’s law in 2016.”
Environmental Working Group Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Scott Faber said, “Today’s draft GMO disclosure rule is an important milestone. We’re one step closer to having a national mandatory GMO disclosure system.”
“But, the draft rule leaves many fundamental questions unanswered, fails to provide solutions for consumers without smart phones or consumers with lousy cell service, and fails to provide clear rules that ensure that QR codes will consistently scan
“Consumers deserve a simple disclosure that covers all genetically engineered foods, including sugars, oils and the products of modern biotechnology. They should not have to fumble with their cell phones or only get half the story.”
Food Marketing Institute President and CEO Leslie Sarasin, who represents 33,000 retail stores, said the rule “will help bring to customers a consistent way to disclose information regarding bioengineered food products.”
Neither the National Farmers Union nor the Organic Trade Association was willing to comment, but OTA referred interested parties to comments it had provided last year. ❖