USDA labeling proposal diffuses GMO stigma

By Joan Conrow

May 8, 2018

Though anti-GMO activists have long pushed labeling as a way to stigmatize genetically modified foods, America’s draft proposal for labeling such products deftly diffuses that effort with new language and friendly-looking symbols.

Two commonly used terms — genetically engineered and genetically modified — would be abandoned in favor of the new phrase “bioengineered” (BE), according to the US Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule for implementing a mandatory food labeling law that was adopted two years ago.

Furthermore, the BE definition references only transgenic products, or those that wouldn’t be produced through traditional breeding methods. This includes crops like Bt corn, which has been given inherent resistance to insect pests through the addition of a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil-dwelling bacterium widely used for pest control in both conventional and organic agriculture.

Products created through pioneering editing tools like CRISPR, which can silence or delete certain genes, would not be included in the BE definition if the end result mimics conventional breeding or could potentially be “found in nature.” They would thus would be exempt from labeling.

The proposal, which is open for public comment through July 3, is likely to draw the ire of activist groups that have invested years of campaigning effort in demonizing the term “GMO.” Companies like the Non-GMO Project, meanwhile, have built a brisk business by certifying that foods do not contain transgenic material using a standard much narrower than the proposed labeling rules. They may stand to lose business if “GMO” ceases to be a relevant consumer term.

To simplify the regulatory process, the USDA is proposing to create two lists of BE foods. One would include commodity crops like field corn, soy, cotton, canola and sugar beets, which are predominantly genetically modified in the US. Any food or product made from these ingredients would be given the BE label. The second list would reference such foods as apples, sweet corn, papaya, potatoes and summer squash, which do have some GM varieties, though they are not yet widely grown. Foods with these ingredients would carry a label stating they may contain BE ingredients.

Certain products would be exempt from the labeling requirement, including foods served in restaurants and similar retail establishments, as well as those containing very small amounts of bioengineered ingredients. The proposed rule offers three options for defining and regulating these small amounts.

Products with meat as the primary ingredient also would be exempt, as well as those produced by an animal that has consumed bioengineered feed.

The proposed rule offers companies various options for disclosing the presence of BE ingredients. These include three options mandated by the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law — written text, a symbol and scannable QR codes — as well as a text message disclosure. While the written text and symbol would appear directly on a label, the electronic disclosures would require consumers to either scan a code or text a number to learn if the product contains BE ingredients.

In keeping with the USDA’s desire to avoid turning the labeling requirement into a warning, the proposed “BE” symbols range from smiley faces to a bucolic representation of blue skies, bright sun and green land.

Though public comments will be accepted through July 3, the USDA is required by congressional mandate to finalize the rule by July 29.  Large companies will have to comply by Jan. 1, 2020, while smaller food manufacturers will be given an additional year. However, companies can use up their existing inventories of food labels through Jan. 1, 2022.