Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the final GMO labeling rule on Thursday, which governs the mandatory labeling of foods which are genetically modified, pursuant to legislation signed by President Obama in 2016.
The rule calls GMO foods "bioengineered." USDA defined these foods in a statement as "those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature." According to the law, their presence must be disclosed on packaging through text, symbol, electronic or digital link and/or text message. Options such as a phone number or web address are available to small food manufacturers, or for small and very small packages.
The standard was required by the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law passed by Congress in 2016. The implementation date for most manufacturers is Jan. 1, 2020, except for small ones, which have until Jan. 1, 2021. The mandatory compliance date is Jan. 1, 2022, and regulated entities — food makers, importers and certain retailers who label food for retail sale — may voluntarily comply with the standard until Dec. 31, 2021, the agency said. The final rule will be published Dec. 21 in the Federal Register.
There has been much criticism — and some legal action — over the USDA's delay in issuing these final guidelines, which were supposed to be set by July 29. As a result, the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health sued the agency, asking a federal court in California to find it in violation of the law and order it to comply with the timeline.
According to a senior policy analyst for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, the agency was a bit behind as of last June but still on track to get it done. The AMS is responsible for defining the products to which the labels will apply, the proportion of genetically modified ingredients that require a label, and what the labels will look like.
Now that the USDA has finally issued the standard, there is still criticism about how it has proceeded and whether the result has adequately responded to customer demands for transparency about the presence of GMO ingredients in food.
Scott Faber, senior vice-president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said in a release the final rule "will allow the genetically engineered ingredients in many foods to remain hidden from consumers" because it doesn't include all genetically engineered foods and doesn't use terms that consumers understand.
"A fair standard should address the needs of consumers who don’t have expensive phones or who live in rural places with poor cell service but the rule put forward today simply fails to do that," Faber said in the release. "At a time when consumers are asking more and more questions about the use of genetic engineering, today’s rule will further undermine the technology by sowing greater confusion among Americans who simply want the right to know if their food is genetically modified — the same right held by consumers in 64 other countries."
EWG noted that a number of large CPG companies — including Campbell Soup, Mars, Danone, Kellogg, Coca-Cola and Unilever — will voluntarily disclose all GMOs in all their foods, not just in those required by the final rule. Others have already removed genetically modified ingredients from their products — such as Del Monte, Hormel's Applegate brand and grocery store Earth Fare's private label items — since surveys show some consumers will avoid them if possible.
There could be additional pushback since products made from 13 bioengineered crops and foods on USDA's list won't require GMO labeling. According to Food Business News, they are alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, potato, salmon (AquAdvantage), soybean, squash, sugarbeet and certain varieties of apple, eggplant, papaya and pineapple.
In addition, the final rule says no disclosure is required for refined foods derived from bioengineered crops unless they contain detectable modified genetic material. This means refined beet sugar, soybean oil and corn sweeteners — which mainly come from bioengineered seed — won't have to labeled as bioengineered ingredients. However, testing will be required to guarantee there is no detectable material. This proposal was opposed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and a number of large food companies including Unilever and Hershey because they thought it would lessen consumer trust and increase confusion.
The final rule establishes the disclosure symbols acceptable under the final guidelines. After considering a number of different designs, the agency decided to adopt a basic round one with different wording. One has 'BIOENGINEERED" on the top and bottom, while the other has "DERIVED FROM" on the top of the circle with "BIOENGINEERING" on the bottom. The symbols can be used in color or black and white.
Plenty of educational outreach will be required to the general public, food manufacturers and retailers following the USDA's announcement, which occurred just before Christmas week and the same day the Farm Bill was signed and Perdue pledged to strengthen work requirements for SNAP recipients — proposals that didn't make it into the final Farm Bill.
The disclosure standard will impact all consumers and a whole host of companies — and how they do business and decide where and how to source ingredients — so would benefit from as much focused attention as it can get.