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Groups offer reaction to bioengineered labeling standard

Farm groups united in their support for the new rules, but others charge the standard could confuse consumers

Announcement that USDA is publishing the labeling standard for bioengineered foods was met with support from key farm groups; and negative reaction from consumer groups. The labeling standard, which goes into effect starting Jan. 1, 2020 for major food manufacturers and 2022 for smaller businesses, will include use of one of two labels. Farm Progress pulled together a range of responses on the measure issued in statement form from the groups.

In support of the new labeling plan

Zippy Duvall, president, American Farm Bureau Federation, noted that the rule is “a victory not only for consumers who want transparency but for the entire food value chain, from farmer to food manufacturers.”

He noted that the rules add clarity to the marketplace so that consumers can make informed decisions on key issues that matter to them. The rule also “protects the innovation that is critical to the sustainability of agriculture,” Duvall added.

The National Corn Growers Association shared that the new rules are designed to inform consumers about the presence of bioengineered material in their food for marketing purposes and that USDA’s disclosure standard stands firmly with science.

Lynn Chrisp, a Nebraska farmer and president of NCGA, noted that “America’s corn farmers need a consistent, transparent system to provide consumers with information without stigmatizing important, safe technology.”

The association worked with stakeholders in the value chain to support enactment of the program “because it prevented a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws, that would have cost U.S. consumers, farmers and manufacturers billions of dollars,” Chrisp said.

Vermont was an early state requiring labeling of foods with GMO content. That was delayed as Congress and USDA went to work on a federal standard. Other states, such as Oregon, had explored developing labels based on in-state referenda that failed. However, the pressure was building for individual states to have labels. The Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act would supersede that effort.

In its response, American Soybean Association President, Davie Stephens, Kentucky, noted that soybean farmers are also pleased with the move. “We believe that it allows transparency for consumers while following the intent of Congress that only food that contains modified genetic material be required to be labeled bioengineered under the law, with food companies providing additional information if they choose,” he said.

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives also weighed in on the issue noting that the rule gives the public access to more information than ever before on how their food is produced. Chuck Connor, president and CEO of NCFC added: “At the same time, farmers and food producers will have access to the technology needed to provide safe and affordable foods to a growing world population.”

And the National Grain and Feed Association noted that the intent of the government-mandated bioengineered food disclosure standard is to inform, and not mislead consumers. NGFA was a member of the Steering Committee of the Safe Affordable Food Coalition that supported development of the new standard. The association also noted that animal feed and pet food, as well as meat, milk, eggs and other human food derived from animals fed bioengineered grains or other ingredients are exempt from the mandatory labeling standard.

Response to the contrary

Not every group is supporting the new labeling standard. Food and Water Watch weighed in and noted its Executive Director Wenonah Hauter: “This deceptive rule will keep people in the dark about what they’re eating and feeding their families. It is meant to confuse consumers, not inform them.”

Hauter said the new rule is filled with loopholes that will allow manufacturers to use digital codes and other technology to make disclosure more difficult for consumers, rather than on-package labels. “Many people don’t have access to smartphones needed to scan QR codes, or access to a good signal while shopping, Hauter added.”

Hauter went on to say the rule refers to GMOs as “bioengineered” or BE foods, claiming it is a “deceptive strategy because most consumers don’t know what that means. The symbol that rule allows manufacturers to use in their disclosure suggests to consumers the product is natural and sustainable, when genetically engineered foods are anything but. And the rule’s definition of what triggers labeling are far too limited.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a statement claiming that consumers will be confused by the new labels as well. CSPI said it generally supports the final rule because “it finally gives the information to consumers in a uniform manner. However, the rule is complex and much education of consumers will be needed before consumers will understand the newly disclosed information,” the statement read.

CSPI, like FWW, claims consumers will not be familiar with the term “bioengineered.” The organization had advocated for what it says is a more familiar and scientifically accurate term – “genetically engineered.”

Another concern is that highly processed ingredients, which are derived from genetically engineered crops, such as sugar and corn oil, will not be disclosed on a mandatory label basis, but could be disclosed on a voluntary basis. CSPI noted that these ingredients are chemically indistinguishable from their counterparts not produced by genetic engineering.

Note, highly processed foods do not have DNA – so in fact don’t contain bioengineered content. This is one reason the label is not required for those products.

CSPI said consumer studies have shown buyers expect highly processed ingredients to be labeled and many food manufacturers want to provide that information. CSPI does agree with the decision to disclose that highly processed ingredients can be labeled as “derived from bioengineering,” but disagrees with USDA’s decision not to mandate that disclosure.

The official rule will be published Dec. 21. You can check out the regulations in this Federal Registration publication.

Source: AFBF, NCGA, ASA, NCFC, NGFA, FWW, CSPI

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