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5000 food products already use QR codes or Smart Labels. That number will jump to 34,000 by year end. (Special to Agweek)

USDA in rulemaking phase for National Biotech Labeling

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After a long and controversial fight, Congress passed a national biotech food labeling bill last summer.

The National Biotech Disclosure Law was a response to the July 1, 2016, state biotech labeling mandate in Vermont that threatened to disrupt interstate commerce and increase costs for food companies and especially consumers. It also threatened to stigmatize biotechnology for farmers. The national rules are set to go into effect in July 2018, and the USDA is currently in the rule-making phase. Both the farm and food industries expect a proposed rule by the end of this year, followed by a comment period and final rule before the July 2018 deadline.

Randy Russell, president of The Russell Group in Washington D.C., represents the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. He says the law does three things including bringing certainty to the industry with federal preemption.

"It stops states from putting in similar types of laws like Vermont," he says. "It has a very strong national uniform standard for bioengineered food. And then lastly it gives food companies options — either using a QR code, electronic disclosure or on-pack labeling."

Roger Lowe, executive vice president of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says the members of his group are already using QR codes. GMA developed a Smart Label program that allows food companies to provide biotech and other nutritional information beyond an on-package label. The Smart Labels already are on 5,000 products, and that number will jump to 34,000 by year end, he says.

Lowe says the Grocery Manufacturers Association supports the Smart Label as a way to provide full disclosure to consumers.

"We supported this legislation and we're for mandatory disclosure. We just think digital is the best way to do it, because you can provide more information through Smart Label than can ever fit on a package label," he says. That information includes biotech information, but also nutritional and allergen information.

The Smart Label also allows companies to inexpensively and continually change product information.

"Digital is so much more cost effective in terms of changing information on an ongoing basis. You can make real time updates," says Lowe. Plus, he says that transparency minimizes the consumer stigma about biotechnology. "The fact that 70 percent of the food products contain some form of GMO, the fact that the FDA, the American Medical Association and other groups find its safe is all information that's important and you have to overcome fear with information"

The other stipulation in the National Biotech Disclosure Law was that meat and milk raised from livestock fed biotech crops would not have to be labeled as GMO, which is important for the livestock industry.

"Clearly we've argued all along the feed should not dictate what the final product is," Russell says.

Lowe agrees. "Our position is that if an animal is fed GMO feed it's still considered non-GMO," he says.

However, it is unclear and even confusing why USDA's Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service released proposed rules last fall that would provide guidelines and allow meat companies to label products as non-GMO.

"I think we have some work cut out for us down at USDA to make sure that there is consistency between what AMS is proposing and what APHIS and FSIS are working on, and we're going to work on that," says Russell.

Another gray area is if the USDA will have authority to set rules for companies that label products non-GMO as a marketing gimmick. For instance, companies are labeling products non-GMO that are not biotech foods or do not contain biotech ingredients, such as asparagus or sea salt.

"I don't believe right now USDA has the authority to come out and say a product is non-GMO and then here are the specifications," says Russell.

Both Lowe and Russell say the labeling debate was never one about the safety of GMOs. "Every reputable organization that's looked at this has found that GMOs are completely safe and consumers should rest assured in that," Lowe says.

So, once implemented, biotech labeling will be a win for the food industry, farmers and consumers.

"In the end, I think we're going to end up with something that is going to be good for consumers," says Russell. "And it's also going to protect this very, very important technology for farmers."