** Update on the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Law **
By a stroke of the pen, President Obama put to rest for all time (by “all time,” we mean a decade) the brouhaha over labeling foods containing GMO ingredients. By signing the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard law on July 29, 2016, the President and Congress proclaimed to the citizenry that GMO labeling is important — but not so important that the labels actually have to be seen. How did we get to this point? A brief history is in order.
When one of the editors of this blog watches Netflix with his English Bulldog, he is enjoying the companionship of a genetically modified organism (“GMO”). Long before the first GMO food – the Flavr Savr tomato — hit grocery store shelves in 1994, humans were engineering crops and livestock the old fashioned way – selective breeding. Modern GMOs, of course, differ from those derived from selective breeding. They are developed on a molecular level – a specific gene from a donor organism that expresses a desirable trait is inserted into the genome of the target organism to give the latter that same trait. While consumer organizations and environmental activists have sounded the tocsin (or toxin) over GMOs since the beginning of bio-engineering, the federal government – particularly the FDA – has not been alarmed.
Two years before Flavr Savr, the FDA published its “Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties.” In this document, the FDA reminded the public that a food additive must be approved prior to use unless it is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The FDA concluded that, while a plant gene inserted into another plant is an additive, generally that gene is GRAS. “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed from the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.” Based on that logic, the FDA’s regulations for plant GMOs are the same as those for traditional foods with the exception of a voluntary (“recommended”) consultation procedure with which developers of GMO-containing foods typically comply. (Note that the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service plays a limited regulatory role with regard to GMOs that pose a risk to other plants or animals and the EPA regulates GMOs that are bio-engineered to produce a pesticide – for example, the infamous, but unblemished, Bt-corn.)
In the 1992 Policy, the FDA eschewed requiring food companies incorporating plant GMOs to label their products as such under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because “the agency does not believe that the method of development of a new plaint variety (including recombinant DNA techniques) is normally material information within the meaning of 21 U.S.C. 321(n).” The FDA has not deviated from this position in the past quarter decade. The agency’s website has a page directed to consumers which rhetorically asks, “Are foods from GE plants safe to eat?” The response is, “Yes. Credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marked to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.”
The FDA’s refusal to mandate that food companies label their products containing GMOs does not mean that consumers who care about such things have been stymied. In 1990, Congress enacted and George Herbert Walker Bush signed the Organic Foods Production Act, which required that the USDA develop national standards for organic products. Ten years later, the USDA issued its final rule establishing the National Organic Program (NOP), which governs both fresh and processed food products, including crops and livestock. The “USDA Organic” label means many things under the NOP — but one of them is no genetic engineering. GMOs are prohibited in organic products as excluded methods of production. 7 CFR § 205.105. Therefore, a consumer that doesn’t want to ingest a GMO need only look for the “USDA Organic” label.
The NOP was not enough for Vermont. In 2014, Vermont enacted Act 120 – a manifesto against the federal government’s oversight of GMOs — that required labels on products containing genetically engineered ingredients. “[F]ood offered for sale by a retailer after July 1, 2016 shall be labeled as produced entirely or in part from genetic engineering if it is a product: (1) offered for retail sale in Vermont; and (2) entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.” Act 120, § 3043. In addition, “a manufacturer of a food produced entirely or in part from genetic engineering shall not label the product on the package, in signage, or in advertising as ‘natural,’ ‘naturally made,’ ‘naturally grown,’ ‘all natural,’ or any words of similar import that would have a tendency to mislead a consumer.” Id.
The food industry went into an uproar over Vermont’s law because – given the realities of interstate commerce – companies would have to change their labeling nationwide to satisfy the demands of Vermont. While manufacturers have had to bend to the legislative will of California from time to time (“Made in the USA”/Prop 65), it’s quite another thing to answer to Vermont.
Due, in part, to persistent lobbying, Congress enacted the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard law just in time to pre-empt Vermont’s organic labeling law from going into effect. The law requires that the USDA “establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard with respect to any bioengineered food and any food that may be bioengineered” by July 2018. Therefore, GMO labeling will be required nationwide sometime after 2018. But because Congress clearly believes that this law is a solution in search of a problem, the statute has a unique labeling provision that “require[s] that the form of a food disclosure under this section be a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link . . . with the disclosure option to be selected by the food manufacturer.” What does this mean? Simply put, food companies will have the option of either a product label with a bar code accompanied by the words, “scan here for more food information” or a toll-free telephone number with “call for more food information.” In short, an actual GMO disclosure on the label is not required. Consumers who care will roam supermarket aisles – smart phones in front of their faces – scanning bar codes to find their non-GMO groceries like Pokemon Go zombies looking for Poke Balls.Share this: