The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act signed into law on July 29, 2016, by President Barak Obama made the United States the 65th country to demand disclosure of genetically modified foods, joining the ranks of Europe, Japan, Brazil and many others.
Genetically modified food has been the center of controversy for almost a decade.
A few states in the U.S. have already voted in favor of compulsory labeling for genetically modified food, although Vermont was the only state that made it mandatory.
The GMO Labeling law starts another part of the GMO marking adventure, but the story is a long way from being done.
The vast majority of GE crops that are being cultivated right now in the U.S. will probably be able to avoid any consequences as a result of this new law.
So, let’s start by clarifying what the term “genetically modified foods” actually means.
What is GM food?
Genetically Modified foods are produced from or by means of GM organisms.
Any organism whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way not found in nature – through either selective breeding or by natural recombination – is called a genetically modified organism (GMO).
The use of genetically modified crops is not new; it has been in practice since the 1990s.
The most common genetically engineered foods are soybeans, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, rapeseed, and sugar beet and these products are often used as raw material in food processes.
The new standard uses the term “Bioengineered Food,” and this term refers to all the foods that contain in-vitro recombinant DNA technique modifications in the genetic material and excludes the food that is modified by conventional breeding or found in nature.
Several terms are used to describe this technique including “Genetic Engineering,” “Bioengineered,” “Modern Biotechnology.”
What does the new law contain?
USDA Agricultural Marketing Services (AMS) is responsible for developing the standard and federal laws banning any state from establishing or continuing to mandate any requirement relating to the labeling in case the food is bioengineered.
Food containing GMOs should be labeled in one of three ways; text, symbol or electronic or digital link, with the exclusion of websites whose URLs are not set in the link.
The USDA will dictate the wording on the packaging along with the sign, while food manufacturers are free to choose the type of disclosure.
Small food producers have two more labeling options: a telephone number beside the text where the consumer can find out additional information, or a website with information that is maintained by the manufacturers.
The limit to the amount of GM ingredients allowed in food products is determined by the USDA.
This threshold for disclosure could be any number, for example, in European countries food with 0.9% or even less of “unintentional” ingredients originating from GE crops need not be labeled.
Other countries like Japan and South Korea require a GM label if the genetically modified ingredient is 5% or 3% of the total product respectively.
Every food company has to go through a regulatory review and once the food has successfully passed through that process, and even if it has GMO, it can still be considered safe to consume.
The law requires that a food not be considered bioengineered just because the animal from which the food is derived consumes feed derived from bioengineered substances.
Organically produced food is not required to state that it is “Non-GMO” or “Not bioengineered” as their certification will guarantee the absence of bioengineering in the food.
The USDA was given two years to generate a national mandatory GM food disclosure system along with the procedures and specific requirements for implementation. The two-year period is up in July of this year.
Developments until now
On September 6, 2017, the USDA released a study of the challenges faced by consumers trying to access information related to bioengineered food through either digital or electronic links and the potential solutions.
The result showed that 77% of Americans own smartphones and 93.7% of the population has access to broadband.
Most of the big grocery chains offer Wi-Fi; however, only 35% of small retailers have free Wi-Fi services.
Consumers face a new challenge – using mobile applications to scan the digital code on food packaging.
Another major challenge is access to the internet in rural areas for the consumers using small retail shops, and elderly people who do not access the internet.
The USDA also provided confirmation of the consistency between the new federal law and the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 by publishing a Policy Memorandum on September 19, 2016.
This policy ensured that certified organic products will not require disclosure as bioengineered and no modification will be made to the USDA organic regulation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service Agency was seeking input from the stakeholders that will develop and establish a proposed draft of the rule.
There were 30 questions asked on topics ranging from what terms to use for bioengineered foods, which techniques should be considered as conventional breeding, is there a need for more than one disclosure category, to what should be the requirements for imports.
The deadline for feedback was August 25, 2017, and during the rulemaking process, the public had the opportunity to remark on any proposed rule.
How to prepare yourself
As of now, the USDA intends to publish a final rule on labeling food containing GMO by December 1st with a view to begin enforcing the rule on January 1st, 2020.
Assuming that it will eventually be enacted at this time, it would be prudent that food manufacturers begin to prepare themselves in advance. Here are a few simple steps to help you prepare and reduce last-minute pressure.
1) Ingredient Traceability
The one way to ensure the safety and quality of your food is to track where the raw material originated and the conditions they have been through.
With these new regulations, food producers need to be even more cautious when selecting new suppliers.
Existing suppliers must be re-evaluated, and no delivery should be accepted without a certificate of analysis or valid service contract.
2) Testing Schedule
The analysis of food to identify the specifications of ingredients is critically important, and nearly every food manufacturer will already have an effective testing plan; however, there is now a need for an analysis of bioengineered substances.
3) Protect yourself
Food producers need to create a procedure that will help in case of misleading labeling charges and the recall expense.
This should provide a safeguard in the event a supplier made false claims to the GMO-free system.
At present, there is considerable uncertainty regarding the outline of the final rule.
The type of disclosure text and/or electronic or digital link which will be compulsory is yet to be identified.
The quantity of GMO allowed in a product before the labeling requirements come into play is also an unknown.
The USDA has a challenging role in providing a national standard for GMO labeling that will resolve the debate that has been happening throughout the United States.
The time span of at least one to three years will be provided to food manufacturers to fulfill the requirements.
In the current situation, the most sensible option for food producers is to be continuously aware of any developments occurring in the United States.