What Consumers Need to Know About the New GMO Labeling Law
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve no doubt seen and heard the contentious debate surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and Genetic Engineering (GE) in our food supply. Late last week, President Obama made history by signing into law a bill requiring labeling of GMO’s on food packages. Well, sort of. The legislation will require most food packages to display text, a symbol, or an electronic code that can be scanned by a smartphone. Once scanned the user will have access to “the bioengineering disclosure” on the first page that appears.
The law limits the definition of bioengineering to food “that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques” and “for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” What does this mean? It means products that are altered via older methods, and those modified using newer gene editing technology would be exempt. It also means that disclosure would be required on foods such as bioengineered corn or soybeans, but likely not on the oils made with these ingredients. In addition, the law states that the final regulation must “prohibit a food derived from an animal to be considered a bioengineered food solely because the animal consumed feed produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered substance.” In regular talk, this means animals given GE feed wouldn’t have to display the GMO label. The law also states that the final regulation must “determine the amounts of a bioengineered substance that may be present in food, as appropriate, in order for the food to be a bioengineered food.” Normal talk: the final regulation will likely include a minimum level of GE ingredients a product must contain to require the GMO label.
Consumers won’t be seeing these new symbols any time soon. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has two years to finalize a regulation establishing a “national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard” and after the regulation is finalized, manufacturers will have a year or two to implement the changes.
Food served in a restaurant is excluded, as is food produced by very small food manufacturers. In addition, the law considers certification by the USDA’s national organic program sufficient to allow a claim indicating a lack of bioengineering, such as ‘‘not bioengineered’’, or ‘‘non-GMO.” Could this be used as an incentive for more manufacturers to gain USDA organic certification? Possibly. However, it is likely just included because the organic program already has a loose requirement about GMO’s in organic food, so including this provision will allow the USDA to overlook all of the products that already bear the USDA organic seal when considering which foods must bear the label, compliance, and enforcement.
Concerned your grocery store doesn’t have adequate internet access to utilize the technology while you’re shopping? The law also requires USDA to conduct a study considering whether consumer access to the electronic or digital bioengineering disclosure would be affected by the availability of wireless Internet or cellular networks. Some of the other factors that the study must consider and look into are the availability of landline phones in stores and potential challenges facing small and rural retailers.
Perhaps the main purpose of the law is that it also preempts any state-based legislation dealing with GE/GMO labeling, prohibiting states from passing a separate law that is not consistent with this national law. To read the text of the legislation, visit: https://www.congress.gov/114/bills/s764/BILLS-114s764enr.pdf
To be frank, it seems like this law will do little to educate consumers and identify GMO’s and GE foods. Further, who is actually going to take the time to scan with their phone each product they’re interested in buying and analyze the information they’re given when trying to make a purchasing decision in the grocery store? With two toddlers usually in tow, I know this option is unlikely for me. Perhaps the final regulation will require a public database where consumers can look up a product before they get to the store. Time will tell. During the two-year period the USDA will solicit public comments that will help shape the requirements in the final rule. If you feel strongly about this issue I encourage you to provide a public comment to USDA, and to share your thoughts below!