There were many lengthy delays in finalizing the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) Food Labeling law that can be referenced in the Federal Register as taking place on Friday, December 21, 2018. The establishment and implementation of the new Standard required an amendment to the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. A timeline of implementation dates was put in place with the Bioengineered food labeling voluntary compliance effective date ending on December 31, 2021.
You may have noticed Impossible Food’s ground beef substitute in your grocery store in September. With its launch, it became the first bioengineered labeled product on the market.
As a consumer, what does this mean?
As a consumer, the outcome of the decision by the AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA) on how to label GMOs does not seem like it is in everyone’s best interest.
The long delays in implementation were around debates on how and if the items we purchase at a store will need to be labeled if they contain GMOs and if the words BE (Bioengineered) would be used. The definition in the Federal Register of these terms means:
According to the Act defines “bioengineering” with respect to a food as referring to a food “(A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and (B) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
AMS has revised the proposed definition of “bioengineered food” to reflect its interpretation of the amended Act that foods with undetectable modified genetic material are not bioengineered foods.
To be clear, the Bioengineered Label = GMO Ingredients, but it means that not all GMO products have to be labeled. In reading the definition, you might wonder how is it possible for GMOs to not be detectable. The part of the Act not being in everyone’s best interest is the manufacturer of the product does not have to drill down to the raw ingredients used. For example, when a GMO grain has been crushed, cracked, broken, or turned into oil, solids, or syrup, the GMO DNA is no longer detectable.
What can be done to keep what’s on your plate GMO-free?
The best way to look for foods that do not contain or are not genetically modified is to look for the USDA Organic Seal. Organic foods do not contain, nor are they processed or handled with other GMOs.
Taking a stand
To help consumers understand the labeling, the OTA (Organic Trade Association) is urging companies to, “voluntarily label all products and ingredients that are not organic and produced through genetic engineering and to do so using on-pack (label) text disclosure with plain English terms that consumers are familiar with. All food that is genetically engineered should be labeled, regardless of whether the GMO material is detectable, and disclosure statements should be made through labels with clear, understandable terms.”
The OTA published a blog titled Response to the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard that specifically states where this final rule falls short of its purpose to inform consumers about GMO content in their food adequately and describes how in the following ways:
- The regulation prohibits the use of clear terms that the public recognizes and understands (i.e., genetically engineered, genetically modified, GMO). Instead, it allows only for the term “bioengineered.” This term is unfamiliar to consumers and will have the effect of confusing shoppers and certainly not add the transparency that consumers want.
- It exempts refined ingredients and products with undetectable GMO content, even if they are derived from GMOs.
- It exempts new GM food produced with gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR and RNAi in violation of commonly accepted definitions.
- It allows for the option of digital/electronic disclosures rather than requiring on-pack plain English text disclosure.
- With the exception of organic products, it does not clearly state that products exempt from mandatory disclosure must not, by default, qualify for absence claims (i.e., non-GMO).
- The stylized GMO symbol with a four-pointed starburst does not reflect a neutral symbol as Congress intended and is misleading. It could convey that GM foods are safer than non-GM foods, which is prohibited by the statute.
- The final rule includes a threshold (allowance for trace amounts of GMOs) that is inconsistent with accepted private standards, most of the OTA major global trading partners, and unacceptable to consumers.
“Not in Organic” Campaign
The Organic Trade Association created an ad titled “Not in Organic” that was published in the Wall Street Journal. The ad listed a long list of chemicals you should never have to read in your food.