- The U.S. Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service has started the process of figuring out how to write the guidelines for the GMO labeling law signed nearly a year ago after it published Tuesday a list of 30 questions for stakeholders to answer and comment on.
- USDA will use the responses to these open-ended questions to guide the rulemaking process. Answers can be emailed to the department.
- The open-ended questions ask people in the industry about things such as how they would define terms, how to determine if a product requires a GMO label and what sort of on-package symbol should be used to denote GMO ingredients.
The GMO labeling law, signed by then-President Obama on July 29 last year, gave the USDA only two years for the rulemaking process to be completed. At a presentation earlier this month at the Food Label Conference, Andrea Huberty, senior policy analyst for the USDA's AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program, said for a new federal law, the schedule was tight under normal circumstances.
As anyone who's followed political news knows, the last year has been anything but normal. With a new president in power — not to mention one from a different political party with his own governing philosophy — Washington has been unpredictable. Several new rules and regulations that were in progress when President Trump took office were temporarily frozen as new leadership was named, vetted and confirmed.
At her presentation at the Food Label Conference, Huberty said these questions were written and ready to go at the close of 2016, but the leadership transition slowed the process of getting them out to the public. “We’re a little behind to get this done by 2018,” Huberty said in her presentation. “We’re still on track, but a little behind.”
The questions issues this week will provide USDA some insight on what industry thinks of certain provisions in the law and how they can best be applied. The new law, drafted by politicians, was purposely left with some gray space for food industry stakeholders to fill in with their expertise.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association praised USDA for getting the rulemaking ball rolling.
“GMA thanks USDA for taking this important step to implement the biotech disclosure law and we look forward to reviewing and responding to the Department’s questions," the industry group said in a written statement. "As we work with the Department throughout the rule-making process, we intend to help ensure the law is implemented in line with the biotechnology disclosure legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the President last year.”
Now that USDA is at least on the path to do the rulemaking, will the agency be able to get its work done in time? A year is not very long in terms of writing a proposal, opening it up to public comment and then finalizing the regulation, but Huberty pledged in her presentation that USDA can be on track. Optimism is nice, but time will tell. GMOs are one of the more controversial areas of food manufacturing today.
Outside of the debate over what should be considered GMO and what is exempted, the law has an equally controversial provision about the label itself. The law permits GMO disclosure through a smartphone-scannable digital code, which angered many of the law's proponents.
A study examining the challenges of this disclosure for both consumers and retailers is set to be completed next month, Huberty told the Food Label Conference. Once completed, the study is likely to reignite the parallel conflict over the best way to let consumers know about GMO ingredients.