The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its proposed rule for national Genetic Engineering food labeling — but we need better than what USDA is proposing.
The USDA proposal makes few decisions and instead presents a range of alternatives, leaving the outcome on critical points unstated and uncertain.
Here is our position on the USDA’s proposed rule for the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard:
- Allow for use of common, well-established labeling terms. USDA proposes to restrict the terms “genetic engineering” and “GMO,” despite their use for over 30 years by consumers, companies and regulators. Instead, USDA would allow only the little-known term “bioengineered,” or worse the entirely unfamiliar acronym, “BE,” to denote GMO content. This would mislead and confuse consumers. Companies already are labeling, using the well-established terminology “GMO” or “GE” and USDA should permit that to continue.
- Require neutral symbols. The new law permits the use of symbols instead of words to declare GE. The symbols proposed by USDA appear to be biased toward genetic engineering, or “bioengineering.”
Symbols should be content-neutral and easy to understand, like a circle with “GE” or “GMO” inside it.
- Reject QR codes and other discriminatory options for on-package labels. USDA proposes letting companies print a QR code, web address or phone number on packaging, rather than a disclosure claim, to find out if the product was produced with genetic engineering. These methods would require consumers to have smartphones and reliable internet connection. A QR code must be scanned with a smartphone. A phone number requires calling or texting to receive information. A web address requires a smartphone or computer, plus internet. Requiring consumers to text companies or visit websites to access information would discriminate against more than 100 million Americans who lack access to these technologies. These methods are not transparent or equitable.
- Include all processed foods produced with genetic engineering. The vast majority of GE foods are processed foods made with GE sugar, corn, soy or canola. Many are so highly refined that common industry tests may not detect GE content in the final product, even though it undisputedly was produced with GE. USDA proposes the possibility of exempting these products from labelling. The result could be that the majority of GE foods, including cooking oils, sodas and sweets, would not be labeled. Consumers deserve to know if foods are produced with genetic engineering, regardless of what we can test for today.
- Ensure future food products made with newer forms of genetic engineering are covered. Companies are experimenting with new forms of genetic engineering, such as synthetic biology, gene-editing and RNAI. Foods such as oranges, cacao, potatoes, soy and canola “bioengineered” with CRISPR are in development.
- Harmonize with the European Union standard. USDA proposes two options for handling the presence of genetically engineered content caused by contamination at some point in the supply chain. Disclosure would be required only if unintentional GE contamination exceeded either 0.9%, or 5% of the specific ingredient by weight. The 0.9% threshold is the right one because it is high enough to cover contamination, it aligns with accepted standards in the European Union and it would encourage trade. The 0.9% threshold also aligns with existing standards adopted by many U.S. companies. A 5% threshold is too high to support global trade.
- Demand disclosure now, not postponed until 2022. USDA’s proposal would allow companies to postpone GMO labeling until as late as 2022 and instead permit them to continue to use labels without GMO content information until they have gone through their supply. This is an unreasonable delay. Many companies already are labeling, without disruption or burdensome costs.