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USDA preps to carry out GMO labeling lawUSDA preps to carry out GMO labeling law

Jacqui Fatka

August 4, 2016

4 Min Read
USDA preps to carry out GMO labeling law

CONGRESS conquered an issue that has been haunting it for years: Coming together to advance a compromise on mandatory biotechnology food labeling and delivering it to the President for his signature.

Still, between writing the rules and the litigation expected ahead, the battle is far from over.

The final law requires food companies to identify products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) using one of three options: (1) on-package labels, (2) a U.S. Department of Agriculture-developed symbol or (3) a QR (quick response) code consumers can scan with smartphones that provides a phone number or website with more information.

Meat and dairy products, as well as foods that contain mostly meat, from animals that may be fed genetically engineered (GE) feed are exempt from the labeling requirement.

USDA will be the main promulgator, and all eyes will be on the agency as it sets out to write governing rules on the labeling requirements.

A USDA spokesperson said shortly after the House vote, a working group had already been established to begin the work of crafting the rules.

After the Senate's vote, a technical assessment provided by the Food & Drug Administration raised some skepticism. A key concern of the report was the narrow scope of the bill, particularly its definition of "bioengineering," which would severely limit which products would or wouldn't need to be labeled.

FDA added that the bill's call for phrasing on food "that contains genetic material" will likely mean that many foods from GE sources will not be subject to the labeling requirements. For instance, soybean oil made from GE soy would not have any genetic material in it and so would not be labeled according to the definitions in this bill.

Supporters of the bill focused on a USDA assessment indicating that USDA's general counsel said regulatory officials will follow the spirit of the law when crafting rules and require labeling of all GMO ingredients that gain USDA approval as well as those developed with novel technologies.

"USDA, not FDA, will be the sole agency that will implement mandatory national labeling," Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) insisted. She said FDA has actually denied petitions to label GMOs because there is no scientific reason to, which is why USDA will handle it under its marketing authority.

It seems very likely that there will be a major battle over the course of the next few years as USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) attempts to draft and then finalize rules for GMO labeling options, undoubtedly including debates over definitions, exemptions and technologies.

The Senate bill gives AMS two years to develop rules and regulations for the national labeling system. Such a long time frame provides an opening for opponents of GMO labeling to attach an amendment or policy "rider" to annual funding bills that would block USDA from implementing the legislation.

Such a scenario has played out numerous times in the past, including for country-of-origin labeling and implementation of farm bill provisions with respect to the Packers & Stockyards Act.

Regardless of how the rules turn out, the issue is likely to be litigated in the courts — a process that could add more years to the clock before any labeling law goes fully into effect. Already, FoodDemocracyNow! said it plans to file a lawsuit challenging the 14th Amendment that guarantees "equal protection for all" because the group claims that the law discriminates against the elderly, the poor and anyone without a smartphone to obtain information from the QR code.


Lesson in cooperation

Maybe one of the most amazing feats of the GMO labeling bill's passage was gaining the support of more than 1,000 organizations. After the Senate vote, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) called it the "most significant vote for agriculture" in the last 20 years.

"In the past, many of these organizations were at odds when crafting farm bills or other agriculture policy priorities," Roberts noted, adding that final passage "shows what can be accomplished for farmers when agriculture speaks with one voice."

Leah Wilkinson, American Feed Industry Assn. vice president of legislative, regulatory and state affairs, said in the 15 years she has been involved in the agricultural policy arena, she has never seen the industry come together on an issue like it did with this one.

"It was a great exercise for the food industry, agriculture and feed industry to all band together to stand and protect technology that we know and need to have," she said.

"When we do work together, we can achieve goals," Wilkinson said. "Hopefully, we can ride some of that momentum into other projects as well."

Volume:88 Issue:08

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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