Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told representatives from the National Association of Farm Broadcasting last week that his agency may not make the July 29 deadline to publish a final rule on labeling genetically modified food. According to Feedstuffs, he said during the April 24 meeting that while the department has been working toward that goal, he would like to be closer to meeting it than the department is now.
"I had insisted last year when I got here that we would meet that deadline,” Perdue reportedly said. “I’m still hoping for [completion] this summer, but it does not look like we will meet the deadline that we had insisted upon."
Perdue blamed White House Office of Management & Budget reviews for the delay, even though he said USDA had asked for an expedited process. "We turned in our papers on time; the teachers didn’t grade them on time," he said.
After the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure law passed in 2016 and was signed by then-President Obama, it gave USDA two years to establish a standard GMO disclosure to be required on food labels and the requirements and procedures to make it happen. USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service is responsible for defining which products will need the disclosure, how much GMO material in a product mandates one, and how the disclosure will look. Because of the change in administrations, new personnel and delays in appointments, USDA said it was behind on the schedule last June.
Under the law, all GMO food meant for human consumption must be labeled. GMO food, also known as bio-engineered food, has had its genetic material modified by lab techniques and not through any process occurring in nature or through breeding techniques. The labels themselves can be presented on food packages as text, in symbol form, or as a digital code accessible via smartphone scan. The Agriculture Department will develop the specific wording and any symbols to be used.
A delay in publishing the final rule could cause several problems. It leaves the food and grocery industries, along with food importers, in a bind because they don't know how to implement labeling changes. Because this is a mandatory change and is likely to have stringent size and location requirements, manufacturers and label designers need to start working on designs. Also, in the absence of federal regulations, states such as Vermont — which passed its own labeling law but was preempted by federal action — might take action to enforce their own.
The labeling issue remains controversial since the debate over the safety of genetically modified food hasn't abated. Consumers want transparency in their food, including whether it contains any GMO ingredients. For USDA to delay implementing the rule might add to the skepticism some consumers already feel about food sourcing.
Manufacturers using GMO food ingredients may not be very keen on labeling their products to point this out — though there are exceptions. To get ahead of the curve, some food manufacturers have already phased out genetically modified ingredients. Del Monte reformulated fruit, vegetable and tomato products with non-GMO ingredients two years ago, Hormel's Applegate brand did the same, and Earth Fare removed genetically modified ingredients from its private-label products last year.
While recent research has found some consumers aren't clear about what "non-GMO" and "organic" mean on food labels, they are willing to pay more for products with the "Non-GMO Project Verified" seal. That gives a monetary advantage to manufacturers who don't want to wait for USDA's final rule and are looking for an incentive to get into compliance with the labeling law now — or avoid the requirements altogether. To have "GMO-free" on their products could mean a boost for their bottom line, regardless of how long it takes USDA to finish its work on the labeling rule.