BioEngineered (GMO) Food Labeling Rules

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June 4, 2019

BRUCE FERREE, Owner, Insight Food Safety Consulting; Independent Consultant/Trainer-Eurofins Laboratories

The new rules for bioengineered (BE) foods labeling are out there to be enforced by USDA. Here is a summary of what you should know and be working toward.

In January 2016, Congress enacted the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Act requiring USDA to provide a standard. The president signed it into law (Public Law No. 114-216)) in July 2016. The law does many things: It defines “bioengineered’’; requires a disclosure on a label or by other means for any foods that are bioengineered; states that the law applies to USDA- and FDA-regulated foods (with exceptions); preempts any state bioengineered labeling laws; defines that animals that consumed bioengineered feeds are not considered bioengineered; considers that BE crops are just as safe as non-BE crops; allows certified organic products to make the non-BE claim; and provides that foods that do not meet the labeling requirement cannot be recalled because of non-compliance to the BE labeling disclosure.

In December 2018, USDA published the final rule (7CFR Part 66) with an implementation date of January 1, 2020, except for small food manufacturers, whose implementation date is January 1, 2021. The mandatory compliance date is January 1, 2022, however regulated entities may voluntarily comply with the standard until December 31, 2021.

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Act set forth two symbols approved for use on bioengineered (BE) foods.

In March 2019, FDA published guidance on labeling of BE foods to help manufacturers and processors understand the requirements under the new law which also created a list of all BE crops that must be labeled as BE. The list includes: alfalfa, Arctic varieties of apples, canola, corn, cotton, eggplant (only BARI Bt Begun varieties), papaya (only ringspot virus-resistant varieties, pineapple, (pink flesh varieties) potatoes, salmon (only the AquAdvantage), soybeans, (summer squash), and sugar beet.

If you have not looked into this new requirement, it would be a good idea to review the regulations and the guidance so that you can assure your products are labeled as required.

I personally thank Congress, USDA, and FDA for their work on this. Many of us recall when Vermont passed a law requiring the labeling of BE ingredients in all products sold in Vermont. Many other states had followed suit with similar laws. However, each had unique requirements meaning that product sold in Vermont would need to be labeled differently than product sold in, say, New York. This would have led manufacturers to package products differently for each state’s market, and then be able to control which of their products were moved into which states. Many states had fines for not labeling correctly even though a manufacturer may not control how its product is distributed. It would have been chaos (the opposite of control!) for manufacturers. Now, with this single, nationwide labeling law, it will be much easier.

I’m also pleased that the USDA has defined which products are BE. I’ve asked non-food scientist (or food quality managing) friends how many GMO (or BE) foods they believe there are, with responses varying from a simple “too many” to “most foods are GMO now.” So it’s good to know we now have a place to refer these folks so that they can see definitively that there are only 11 approved for food use (alfalfa is not a food, it is more of a feed item). And we can now note for these folks that many of these 11 have restrictions (e.g., it related to only the Arctic-brand apples).

In addition, the law passed by Congress and signed by the president includes a statement regarding the safety of GMOs, helping to ensure that the public knows this. Here’s the excerpt: “SAFETY. — For the purpose of regulations promulgated and food disclosures made…a bioengineered food that has successfully completed the pre-market federal regulatory review process shall not be treated as safer than, or not as safe as, a non-bioengineered counterpart of the food solely because the food is bioengineered or produced or developed with the use of bioengineering.” NICE! And a thank you to the congressional rule writers.

Finally, there’s a new logo we can expect to see on packages very soon (shown above). There are definitions of the logo and how it can be used in the regulations. Be sure to read the law and the guidance to know how to use it.

I know it’s a pain to have yet another law and more rules to follow. But I do appreciate that there is only one rule now instead of the 50-plus we were headed for only five years ago.

The rule and related information is available here.