Labeling GE Foods —A Slow Process

Legislating can be a long, slow process.

Almost a year ago, Congress approved legislation that established a national standard for labeling foods that contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. This legislation was a compromise between the vast majority of consumers who wanted to know what is in their food, and the food industry that was concerned that labeling GE ingredients would reduce sales of such foods.

The compromise language limited the legislation to “bioengineered” foods, preempted state laws on the subject, and permitted food manufacturers to use various forms of labels: text, symbol or electronic or digital link.

The legislation allowed two years for writing regulations to implement these standards, which are to become effective at the end of July of 2018.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which is developing those regulations, recently invited comments on 30 questions related to the standards and indicated that the USDA would use input on those questions in drafting proposed rules.

The 30 questions are available online at the Agricultural Marketing Service website.

Once drafted, the proposed rules themselves would be submitted for public comments.

In response to these 30 questions consumer-interest groups, e.g. Beyondpesticides.org focused on the following issues:

  • Define “bioengineering” broadly, and compatibly with the federal definition of “organic;”
  • Require labels on foods that include even very small amounts of GE ingredients;
  • Identify GE foods on product labels, or on product shelves in the case of raw foods;
  • Make regulations effective in July of 2018, as called for in the legislation, with no delays.

Consumer-interest groups were sharply disappointed in this legislation, given the overwhelming support for labeling of GE foods, and are now seeking to tilt the compromise language in favor of straightforward, text-based labels.

Critics of the legislation had been particularly negative about its allowance for labels in the form of symbols (e.g., QR codes), website addresses or telephone numbers, as an alternative to text. The argument was that anything other than textual information on packages or shelves would be less useful, particularly for people who lacked the ability to scan digital codes or access the internet while shopping. The pressure for text-based information could take the form of petitions, boycotts or both.

Consumer groups typically advocate the purchase of federally certified organic foods as the ultimate protection against GE foods. While that advice still stands, there are signs that Congress is working toward “reforming” the National Organic Standards Board, which defines “organic” foods.

In a future column, we will explore that dynamic.

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