USDA on GMO labeling law: 'Still on track, but a little behind'

An agency analyst explains what has happened since the law was signed last July — and all of the work that lies ahead

After the bill mandating GMO labeling on food and beverage products was signed into law last July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has had a lot to figure out.

The controversial law puts the responsibility of making some difficult distinctions in the hands of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS): It’s up to them to define the products that the labels will apply to, the amount of genetically modified ingredients that would require a label, and what exactly the labels will look like.

Ever since Barack Obama signed the law on July 28, 2016, there’s been little heard about it. The law requires that final rules be in place by July 2018.

“The project got a little caught up in the transition,” Andrea Huberty, senior policy analyst for the USDA AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program, explained to the crowd on Tuesday at the Food Label Conference in Washington, D.C.

There's a lot in the law that needs public input, Huberty said. AMS had previously put together a list of 30 questions for comments, but it didn’t get published before President Trump’s inauguration — and with the inauguration came new leadership and more delays. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue wasn’t confirmed until April and the department has “been a little sparse in people who can make decisions,” Huberty said.

However, Huberty remained optimistic about the timeline, adding that AMS is looking at “different and alternate ways” to reach out to stakeholders to weigh in on some of the issues to flesh out the rules behind the new law.

“We’re a little behind to get this done by 2018,” she said. “We’re still on track, but a little behind.”

What the law says

The GMO labeling law is exactly what it sounds like: A labeling law. It's important to remember, Huberty said, that GMO ingredients are not considered a food safety issue, which is why the rulemaking is under the jurisdiction of USDA’s marketing service.

“USDA takes position that foods that have been through the regulatory process are safe to eat,” Huberty said.

The law requires that all bio-engineered food intended for human consumption needs to be labeled as such. This food is roughly defined as having genetic material that has been modified using lab techniques — and that could not occur in nature or through breeding techniques.

But what exactly does this mean? And what is the amount of GMO ingredients that will trigger the need for a label? These aspects of the rule will be determined through talking with stakeholders, Huberty said.

Food for human consumption runs the gamut from candy to nutritional supplements and frozen dinners to beverages, so category-level exclusions could be made. For example, Vermont, which passed its own GMO labeling law that was preempted by the federal mandate, had specifically excluded supplements, Huberty said.

The law has definite exclusions. Meat, poultry, dairy and egg products that come from animals that have eaten GMO feed will not need the GMO label, Huberty said. Products that predominately are made from one of these ingredients — like Spam or chicken soup — also will be exempted from the labels. USDA plans to flesh this out more through stakeholder comments, Huberty said. Foodservice establishments will not have to disclose GMO ingredients.

How about that label?

Products containing GMOs will need to be labeled one of three ways: They can use on-package text, a symbol, or a smartphone-scannable digital code. USDA will come up with the wording on the package as well as the symbol.

Huberty noted that Brazil, which also requires GMO labeling, uses a yellow triangle with a T. “It looks like a warning sign,” she said. “Ours will not.”

During debates and negotiations over the labeling law, one of the more controversial provisions was the scannable digital disclosure. This could be something like a QR code, but critics say that excludes consumers who don’t have smartphones.

The labeling law requires a study on the challenges presented by this type of electronic disclosure, both for consumers and grocery retailers. Huberty said USDA has contracted with Deloitte to perform this study, which is slated to be finished next month.

The only type of labeling claim that the law covers is telling consumers that a product contains GMO ingredients. It says nothing about non-GMO disclosures. The law allows products certified under the National Organic Program to include disclosures like “not bioengineered” or “non-GMO” on their labels. However, the labeling law does not impact disclosures or symbols from independent certifying groups like the Non-GMO Project.

The storm ahead

Once the rulemaking proceeds, Huberty said there will be more work ahead.

First, she said, USDA needs to work hard to keep to the schedule set out in the law.

“We’re trying to hit the July 2018 deadline,” she said. “If it’s later than that, people who support the standards will wonder about our ability to get it done.”

Any delay may jeopardize the federal law’s preemption of state and local laws that require GMO labeling. While the issue had been discussed in Congress for years, Vermont’s enactment of its own GMO labeling law helped push the federal bill over the finish line. Vermont’s law, which set out different labeling requirements for products sold in the state, was set to take effect July 1, 2016, but the federal law made the state law moot. However, if the federal law sees delays in implementation, the state may be able to move forward with its labeling requirements — just like New York City did when it started requiring calorie labeling on foodservice menus after the Food and Drug Administration postponed implementation of the national law for a year. 

Considering that GMO products sold in the U.S. will have to be labeled, the new law may also cause problems for imports. For many years, Huberty said, the U.S. had advised other countries not to label GMOs, making the situation a bit stickier.

Then there will be the matter of educating the public. Huberty said USDA will put together two public education campaigns. One will teach consumers what the GMO symbols and labels mean, and one will be focused educating shoppers on the safety of GMO foods. The second campaign will be underway soon. The most recent federal spending bill included $3 million for USDA and the FDA to develop a GMO education program.

But regardless of how the process unfolds, Huberty said USDA is waiting for the storm. While the agency is working to ensure transparency in the rulemaking process, the GMO issue remains quite controversial.

“No matter how good we are… someone is going to be upset and there will be challenges afterward,” Huberty said. “We are trying to minimize those challenges.”

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Filed Under: Manufacturing Packaging / Labeling Policy Marketing
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