June 24, 2018

Update on Food Labelling Regulations

Update on Food Labelling Regulations

By Michael Azain and Penny Riggs

ASAS Public Policy Committee

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure law was signed by President Obama in July, 2016, and amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. This action was taken to circumvent a Vermont law that was scheduled to take effect that same month that would have required labels on any human food containing a genetically modified organism (GMO) sold in the state.   The Vermont law could have created confusion and would set the precedent that individual states could develop their own food labeling regulations. The new Federal law directs the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to develop a national mandatory bioengineered (BE) food disclosure standard by July 2018 for labeling 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“.

An objective of the new regulation is to provide uniform and clear information to consumers, and also to minimize implementation and compliance costs for the food industry.  The proposed rules for the new system were announced in a 30 page document in the Federal Register  on May 4, 2018 with a 60 day comment period.  While meat, poultry and catfish (and food products where these are the first ingredient) are exempt from labeling because they fall under the requirements of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection act, issues remain for which animal scientists should be aware.   One notable change is that labels would use the term “bioengineered food” or “BE” rather than be described as genetically modified or GMO.  This term may provide an opportunity to re-start with consumers as it may not be associated with many of the negatives associated with the GMO term.   In addition, BE may be a more encompassing term for food modifications.

The AMS is seeking comments on several labeling issues in the proposed rule.  It is proposed that foods created by “conventional breeding” or where the modification would be “found in nature” are not BE and would be exempt from labeling.   Proposed definitions for all of these terms are described in the proposed rule.  Other issues relate to terms such as “highly adopted” crops – where more than 85% of the crop in production is already BE, vs. those where it is less common; whether foods, such as oils or starch, purified from BE crops (and likely to have undetectable levels of DNA) need to be labeled; and the thresholds of a bioengineered product that is needed to require labeling in a multi-ingredient food.

Food manufacturers would have several options for informing consumers: a text statement, an electronic or digital link, a text message, or one of 3 proposed BE symbols.   The comment period is open until July 3, and can be accessed here.  The comment period will not be extended due to the mandated timeline to implement the final rule.

It is important for animal scientists to respond to these calls for comment from USDA, and others such as those from the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (open until July 1), or the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (open until June 30).  Participation and comment ensures that science-based input is included in these public comments.  For example, nearly 2500 comments have been received regarding the proposed BE rule – many of which fail to consider scientific evidence.