On the last day before leaving on a seven week recess, this past Thursday Congress enacted The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate the labeling of bioengineered foods (often described as genetically modified foods or GMOs).
The bill trumps the Vermont GMO labeling law that went into effect July 1st (.. who says Congress cannot act swiftly in a bipartisan way) and forestalls a hodgepodge of different state GMO laws being considered in at least 14 states.
Specifically the bill amends the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods.
In the parlance of Congressional rules of order, some will find it interesting that as amended by the Senate on July 7, the legislative vehicle for this measure concerning bioengineered food disclosure, was a vote on the motion to concur in the House amendment to S.764, with a Senate amendment (.. that amendment being the entire text of the GMO bill).
But what is truly interesting is the definition of what requires a label under the new law. Bioengineering with respect to a food, is a food “that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” The FDA had expressed concern in its technical comments, that that definition of bioengineering was narrow and ambiguous, and could exempt many foods from GMO sources, but that could be cured at the discretion of the Agriculture Secretary.
And all of this is a big deal because, by many estimates, more than 80% of processed foods in U.S. stores contain at least one ingredient made with GMO crops. By way of example, more than 90% of cheese in the U.S. is made with genetically engineered rennet.
While a limited amount of food is already labeled for sale under the now superseded Vermont law, we are already meeting with clients about this nationwide requirement that “not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this subtitle, the Secretary shall establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard.”
But even the disclosure standard (i.e., what the label must say) has been controversial and under the law, food manufactures have a choice of placing a text statement or symbol directly on the food packaging itself indicating GMO ingredients, or alternatively, can include a digital QR code that customers could scan with their smartphone to learn about GMO ingredients. Smaller food producers also have a fourth option of offering a phone number or URL on the package that consumers can access for information about GMO ingredients.
It is suggested there is no rational basis for this new law with the broad scientific consensus that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding. A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, released in May, said there is no substantiated evidence that GMO crops have sickened people or harmed the environment.
Just two weeks ago, more than 100 Nobel laureates signed a letter urging Greenpeace to end its opposition to GMOs, including asking Greenpeace to cease its efforts to block introduction of a genetically engineered strain of Golden Rice that would reduce Vitamin A deficiencies causing blindness and death in children in the developing world.
There were no state troopers at the Vermont border last week inspecting food packages for GMO labels. And with this federal law the U.S. will not have a patchwork of different State or local laws banning GMO food products or requiring GMO labels. Whether, the good, the ugly, the bad (.. the title of my favorite spaghetti Western) or some other attribute associated with this Congressional act is your pleasure, GMO labels are coming to your supermarket.