May 4, 2018 – Liz Crampton
After being mandated by Congress, USDA finally has drafted a 106-page proposal for how companies must disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients in their products.
One significant change is that the now-loaded phrase “genetically modified” has given way to something that might have a better spin: bioengineered.
The department proposes using the terms “bioengineered food” or “bioengineered food ingredient” rather than “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered” because it believes that such a term “adequately describes food products of the technology that Congress intended to be within the scope of” the law.
Whatever the lingo, food companies have clamored for a national standard. As part of the new mandate, USDA is giving companies a choice for how they disclose GMOs or bioengineered products on packages — including with a symbol or a scannable code. (The three suggested symbols in the draft are a field, a sunburst or a smiley faced displayed with “BE,” for bioengineered.)
The move “is a critical step towards establishing” a standard under the law that “prevented a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws, that would have cost U.S. consumers, farmers, and manufacturers billions of dollars,” said the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. The group, which supported the law as it was being considered by Congress, said it’s analyzing the rule and developing comments.
Still, the rule must be wrapped up quickly. USDA is staring down a July 29 deadline for completing the rule intended to provide a mandatory national standard that companies have to abide by. The Agricultural Marketing Service, the agency tasked with drafting the rule, will seek public comments for 60 days.
A lot has to happen in a short time frame. Among the issues USDA will have to sort out is defining what “found in nature” means. Even that is likely to be fraught with different perspectives from industry groups, said Sean McBride, founder of DSM Strategic Communications, which advises food companies.
The agency is also deciding how much GMO a food must contain before it requires labeling based on the percentage of a product’s weight.
“None of them are easy to resolve, as various stakeholders have conflicting views on these issues,” McBride said.
“The devil is indeed in the details, and USDA will have to be the final arbiter on these tough issues, leaving no side fully pleased with the final rule.”
This time, industry groups won’t have much time to tussle. Food companies spent many years fighting among themselves over how to approach mandated GMO labeling.
Campbell Soup — which markets a variety of brands including Goldfish crackers and Prego pasta sauce — decided in 2016 to embrace GMO labeling because consumers were seeking more information about food ingredients. At the time, it was regarded as revolutionary.
Its embrace of mandatory GMO labeling was also among the reasons Campbell said last year it would part ways with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, once the most powerful food lobbying group, which had spent years opposing mandatory GMO labeling.
GMA eventually backed an industry standard called Smart Label, a QR code placed on a product that customers can scan with their mobile phone to get more information about the product, including whether it contains GMOs. So far more than 25,000 food, beverage, personal care and household items have been added to an ingredient-list directory consumers can access online, GMA said in a statement Thursday.
It is unclear whether shoppers will understand the difference. But some advocacy groups say that the new labeling will not address consumer wariness of modified foods.
“Farmers and biotechnology providers have done an unfathomably bad job of making a case for their new technology,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group.
“Renaming it is not going to be enough. Consumers will resent being hoodwinked by trying to call something that is genetically engineered, bioengineered.“
Some watchdog groups have already criticized the QR code option. They worry that such codes won’t work for some consumers who are unfamiliar with how to use the technology, or that it won’t be helpful in places with limited internet access such as rural areas.
“Smart companies like Campbell’s Soup will play it straight with consumers and not make them fumble with their phones to know what’s in their food,” Faber said.
“It remains to be seen what other companies will choose to do.”
Digital codes also pose an issue for people without smartphones or access to a strong Wi-Fi signal when shopping, said Food & Water Watch. It also worries that scanning poses “a minefield for privacy concerns.”
An important question left unanswered by the rule is whether “highly refined” genetically modified foods will be covered by the regulation, such as cooking oils, candy or soda that have ingredients derived from GMO crops but are processed in a way that reduces the detectable amount of genetically modified content, the Center for Food Safety said.
“Excluding highly processed GE foods would mean that consumers would be wrongly left in the dark about thousands of GE products,” said Bill Freese, a Center for Food Safety science policy analyst.
“These products, as well as those from newer forms of genetic engineering, must be subject to mandatory labeling if this rule is to be meaningful.”
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