Drawing praise from some quarters and criticism from others, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published the disclosure standard for bioengineered foods.
The Dec. 21 regulation spells out what manufacturers, importers and certain retailers must eventually put in place to ensure bioengineered foods are appropriately disclosed.
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, passed by Congress in July of 2016, directed USDA to establish this national mandatory standard for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered, the USDA said.
“The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard increases the transparency of our nation’s food system, establishing guidelines for regulated entities on when and how to disclose bioengineered ingredients,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in the release. “This ensures clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food.”
Perdue said the national standard will avoid the “patchwork state-by-state system that could be confusing to consumers.”
The release said the standard defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.
The implementation date of the standard is Jan. 1 of 2020, except for small food manufacturers, whose implementation date is Jan 1 of 2021. The USDA said the mandatory compliance date is Jan. 1 of 2022.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service developed the List of Bioengineered Foods to identify the crops or foods that are available in a bioengineered form throughout the world and for which regulated entities must maintain record, according to the release. The list, available online, includes several fruits and vegetables. The complete list:
- Apple (ArcticTM varieties);
- Eggplant (BARI Bt Begun varieties);
- Papaya (ringspot virus-resistant varieties);
- Pineapple (pink flesh varieties);
- Salmon (AquAdvantage®) ;
- Soybean ;
- Squash (summer) ; and
The records kept by USDA will inform companies whether the food must have a bioengineered disclosure to be communicated to consumers, according to the release.
There are several disclosure options: text, symbol, electronic or digital link, and/or text message. Additional options such as a phone number or web address are available to small food manufacturers or for small and very small packages, according to the USDA.
The rulemaking process for the standard generated more 14,000 comments, according to the USDA.
The Alliance for Biotech Facts praised the standard.
“This new rule is a victory for transparency and for educating consumers. It will give Americans more information about what’s in their food, right on their grocery shelves,” alliance spokesperson Dan Foster said in a news release.
The alliance said it believes it is important to keep in mind that Congress passed this rule with the intent of creating a marketing standard. “The rule does not reflect any health, safety, or nutrition concerns regarding bioengineering or bioengineered foods,” the group said in the release. “Bioengineering is a safe and important technology for feeding a growing world. There is no difference in safety or nutritional value between bioengineered crops and comparable conventional or organic crops.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a news release that the standard could lead to confusion.
CSPI said it generally supports the final rule because it 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 group said.
The group said several features of the disclosure rule were not in the best interest of consumers:
In particular, CSPI said the term “bioengineered” is unfamiliar to most consumers; CSPI had advocated for the more familiar and scientifically accurate term “genetically engineered.”
CSPI said the final rule also does not specify when a food can be voluntarily labeled as “non-GMO.” “There has been a proliferation of non-GMO claims in the marketplace for foods such as water, salt, and orange juice that don’t have any bioengineered counterpart,” CSPI said. “Such misleading labeling by food manufacturers takes advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge to suggest their products are different from similar non-labeled products.”
The group said USDA, or another agency, needs to address this issue if consumers are going to have confidence in the multiple label claims in the marketplace.