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USDA releases proposed biotech labeling rules

WASHINGTON — Consumers will soon see new biotech labeling information on food packages at their local grocery store. It's a result of legislation Congress passed in 2016 after multiple states began requiring their own standards for defining genetically engineered foods.

More than 1,100 organizations supported the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act to provide a uniform way to offer meaningful disclosure for consumers. It will also prevent a patchwork of state labeling laws that would have been confusing for consumers and cost them and food companies billions of dollars.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the proposed draft, there's still a lot that could change before the standard goes into effect as the agency incorporates public input. The proposal was printed in the Federal Register on May 3, opening the public comment period on the proposed 106-page rule for 60 days. The language, in part, defines a bioengineered food or ingredient.

"This law is to require disclosure of foods that are bioengineered," says John Bode, the CEO of the Corn Refiners Association. "That means they contain genetic recombinant DNA."

The law will also determine the level of bioengineered food a product must contain to be labeled. Plus, under the proposal, certain foods will be excluded from the disclosure. For example, a multi-ingredient food would not be subject to the standard.

Randy Russell, with the Russell Group in Washington D.C., represents the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food. He says the rulemaking presents several possible ways to determine what foods will be covered by the final rule and what the disclosure will include and look like.

"The options that are available to a food company are going to be ... a symbol that is non-disparaging or electronic disclosure," he says.

Due to space considerations on the label, the food industry was fairly united on electronic disclosure in the form of a QR code. Consumers could scan the code on their cell phone, and it would direct them to the company's website where they could get additional information on whether the product was bioengineered, along with a host of other information.

Greg Ibach, the USDA under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, says the Ag Marketing Service wants to craft requirements that are straightforward. He says USDA is looking for public input on a number of these key decisions before a final rule is issued later this year.

"We'll look forward to the opportunity to listen to not only agriculture in those proposed rules, but also to consumers," he says.

Farm groups also have been involved to make sure USDA stays true to the law and preserves this technology.

"And the law was clear that this should not be a labeling requirement that hurts agriculture biotechnology," Bode says.

Richard Wilkins, past-president of the American Soybean Association, says they are hopeful the final label will not stigmatize biotechnology for the consumer.

"We're expecting that it will be the QR code that we had worked so hard to achieve," he says. "There are folks out there that would like to denigrate this new technology, and they would want to see a skull and crossbone requirement on the package."

However, one area Ibach says the law isn't likely to deal with is the prohibition of marketing gimmicks used by food companies to claim products are non-GMO when there are no bioengineered options for the product.

"I think that's something that maybe we'll have to wrestle with over time," Ibach says. "It's not our immediate focus with the bioengineered food disclosure regulations."

However, Bode says the law does mandate that labeling must be factual and gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to police and enforce that stipulation in the rule.

The deadline for the final disclosure standard according to the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act was July 29. However, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says it may be delayed due to problems at the Office of Management and Budget.

"I'm still hoping for this summer, but it does not look like we will meet the deadline that we had insisted upon," he says.

USDA will take comments on the proposed biotech labeling rule through July 3. Due to the Congressionally mandated timeline for this rulemaking, Perdue says the comment period will not be extended.