After two years of waiting, the USDA has finally published its proposed regulations to implement labeling of genetically modified crops.
In 2016, Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. At the time, several states, egged on by anti-GMO activists, were considering bills and ballot proposals requiring such labels. Vermont’s disastrous labeling law was just about to go into effect, which would have national consequences. To avoid a patchwork of conflicting state and local laws, Congress acted to streamline the GMO labeling standard to make a uniform, national law.
The USDA has now published the draft rule and regulations and, as required by law, are seeking comments by the public regarding the law. The National Law Review has summed up the draft, but here are some of the points I think are important:
- Mandatory disclosure of the presence of bioengineered ingredients in foods must be made through one of four means: 1) text label disclosure; 2) symbolic label disclosure using one of three proposed symbols; 3) electronic or digital link disclosure; or 4) text message disclosure.
- The regulations exempt the following: food served in a restaurant; “very small” food producers; foods containing de minimis amounts of BE substance; foods made from animals that consumed BE feed; and food certified organic.
- The regulations do not prohibit other claims regarding BE foods, provided that such claims are consistent with federal law.
- The effective date is January 1, 2020 for most manufacturers.
There are a few things that I find very interesting, and even encouraging about the proposed rules.
First, the USDA has decided these foods will be called “bioengineered” instead of “GMOs.” Words matter and not only is bioengineered probably a more precise term, it also does not come with the negative connotations associated with “GMOs.” For years, activists have sold the message over and over again that “GMOs” are untested and dangerous. Not only was this false, but the constant drumbeat was meant to create a negative connotation. Remember: their goal for the labeling of GMOs was to eventually have them banned from cultivation entirely. Naturally then, those same people are now upset the USDA has made this switch; however, that is only because all of those negative campaigns were for nothing. There will be no negative association with the term “bioengineered” and that makes the goal of banning GMOs a little bit harder.
Second, the use of a symbol to designate that a product contains GMO ingredients is also an important change. Wouldn’t it be great if the USDA created a label that cast bioengineered foods in a positive light? Maybe they could come up with something that represents the environmental benefits for these crops? Friends, that is exactly what they did! Take a look at some of the proposed labels:
I am in love with all of them! If I had to choose just one, I would probably pick the smiling sun. At the end of the day, genetically modified crops are green crops and the symbol representing them should express it. While I’m sure anti-GMO activists are disappointed that the USDA didn’t chose a skull and crossbones, I think we can all agree this is so much better!
The next thing that really makes me happy is that products from animals fed bioengineered crops will not require a label. For example, milk from Dairy Cow Betsy, who eats a steady diet of GMO corn, will not require one of the BE labels. Why? Because her milk isn’t genetically modified in any way, shape, or form. She simply ate GMOs and, despite the claims of anti-GMO activists, eating a GMO does not make you a GMO.
My only regret with the draft rules is that non-GMO labels will be allowed to exist, provided they are consistent with other federal laws. I have long advocated for the type of law Canada has, which prohibits the non-GMO label if there is not a GMO crop available. Unfortunately, Canada does not seem to really enforce that law, and its regulatory agency recently found the Non-GMO Project Label does not violate it. Live to fight another day!
All in all, the USDA has really done a good job of putting together its labeling scheme for bioengineered crops. There are options for producers to make complying easy and efficient. The use of the symbol to represent BE crops is well done, creative, and positive. Violations are only a problem if done “knowingly,” and not simply by accident.
I fought hard against any law mandating a label for genetically modified crops. Fundamentally, I still believe such a labeling requirement is obnoxious and unnecessary. That being said, if such a law is going to exist, this is definitely the right way to do it.
Now, let’s make it the law! The USDA is accepting comments until July 3, 2018. You can share your support for this program with the USDA by following the instructions here!