USDA sorts through complex GMO labeling challenge

Sara Wyant Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

New labels to inform you about the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in your foods are on their way, even though there is no evidence that such products are any different from a nutrition or food safety standpoint.

About two years ago, in an effort to fend off various state-by-state labeling schemes and more marketing confusion, Congress mandated that federal labels on all GMO-containing products in food stores inform consumers about the presence of GMOs.

The non GMOs campaigns were already in full swing. Natural foods grocers, for example, joined to form the Non GMO Project a decade ago and began using no-GMOs labels, and grocery shelves have since become flooded with “no GMOs” and “GMO-free” labels on most any kind of food and beverage products – including many which are not derived from any GMO ingredients (like water). That’s in addition to the USDA certified organic label, which is also free of GMOs.

On July 3, USDA closed off public comment on regulations it proposed in May and is working to implement the new law. The agency gathered more than 14,000 comments from interested citizens, groups and companies. Among the key questions addressed: What items should require GMO labeling; what is GMO anyway; what kinds of labels can be used; what products can be exempted; should small companies be exempted, and other crucial pieces of the required regulation.

Most of those who submitted comments say the label requirements should be simple, clear and cover all GMO products. However, it’s unclear what those parameters actually mean for the approximately 40,000 businesses impacted by this proposed rule, 96 percent of which are small.

Some U.S. food makers saw GMO disclosure as both inevitable – plus the smart thing to do –and began voluntarily adding GMO information on their labels.

On Jan. 7, 2016, Campbell Soup Company became the first big food maker to do so. It called for mandated GMO labeling nationally and announced it was “prepared to label all of its U.S. products for the presence of ingredients that were derived from GMOs.” Gracing the announcement was a photo of a can of Campbell’s Spaghettios with the declaration: “Partially produced with genetic engineering …”

Kelly Johnston, Campbell Soup Company’s vice president of government affairs, told Agri-Pulse at its Ag & Food Policy Summit this spring that the move was no mistake: “In fact, I think it was one of the best things we’ve done in my 16 years with Campbell.” He pointed out that, at the time, Congress appeared unable to act on the GMOs labeling question, while Vermont, the first state to mandate such labeling, was preparing to enforce its new law, and “we had been through four very bruising state ballot initiatives” that proposed mandatory GMOs labels.

Worse, he said, because major food makers were fighting the declaration of GMOs on the label, consumers “were telling us we’ve got something to hide and maybe something wrong with the ingredients or products. So, I said, ‘let’s embrace this.’”

Campbell and some other food makers now declaring GMOs on their products include in that category all processed ingredients, such as vegetable oils and sugar, that likely contain no GMOs when processed, although they are derived from genetically modified crops.

Thomas Hushen, Campbell’s associate communications director, says his company “is committed to open, transparent and timely communications about the ingredients we use, why we use them and where they come from.” That includes products from gene-edited crops, which USDA proposes to exclude from the mandate. Instead, he says, “we believe that consumers have the right to know … doing what is best for consumers is best for our business.”

In fact, a recently released study by University of Vermont and Purdue University researchers found that opposition to GMO food in Vermont fell 19 percent after that state began requiring GMO declarations on labels two years ago.

Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, which advocates for mandated GMO labels, says that finding is no surprise, and he believes food companies will not suffer overall by clear and full disclosure of GMOs. In the Vermont case, “consumers are rewarding those companies for playing it straight with them,” he said.

Faber’s organization says 64 countries require GMO labeling, and with U.S. companies having to label their products in the U.S. and around the world, USDA “needs to allow companies to use words that consumers are familiar with – not weasel words like bioengineered.”

Some public comments focused on USDA’s proposed smiley faced BE icons, along with a possible alternative allowing for a label that is just a QR code, which would require an app on a smart phone to read.

U.S. food companies, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have already offered their own digital SmartLabel the past three years as a way to offer consumers full transparency about what is in their products.

However, like countless folks who weighed in on the proposed regulation, “not everyone has a smart phone or access to a computer,” said organic farmer Tom Denison of Corvallis, Ore., in his comments to USDA. Also, instead of a BE symbol, he said, “the proposed rules should clearly display GMO on a label that can be easily read by consumers in the store. Any plan that requires a smart phone or contacting a source outside the store to learn whether GMO’s are an ingredient, is unacceptable,” he said.

Agri-Pulse Contributing Editor Ed Maixner helped write this report.