USDA Issues Final GMO Label Rule

As early as next month, food manufacturers may start using the USDA-approved “Bioengineered” symbol to disclose the presence of GMO ingredients in their packaged goods labeled for retail sale.

Under a Final Rule issued Dec. 19, 2018 by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), food manufacturers, importers, and certain retailers must disclose the presence of foods or ingredients made from genetic engineering when the bioengineered portion exceeds 5 percent by weight of each ingredient. Companies may voluntarily disclose smaller amounts of bioengineered foods or ingredients by using a USDA-approved “Derived from Bioengineering” symbol.

Mandatory disclosure for food manufacturers starts Jan. 1, 2022. Very small manufacturers (having less than $2.5 million in annual sales) and restaurants are exempt. Companies can voluntarily begin disclosure starting Feb. 19, 2019, when the Final Rule takes effect.

The Final Rule implements the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law (PL 114-216), which was signed into law in July 2016. It requires food manufacturers to prominently disclose on the label the presence of bioengineered ingredients.

The new standard “ensures clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “The standard also avoids a patchwork state-by-state system that could be confusing to consumers.”

Under the Final Rule, which went through a lengthy proposal and revision process, highly refined foods or ingredients, such as oils or sugars that were derived from bioengineered crops but which do not contain detectable levels of modified genetic material are not considered bioengineered. Meat and milk from animals that consumed bioengineered feed are also exempt from disclosure. Products certified under USDA’s National Organic Program are exempt because they already must not contain any bioengineered ingredients.

Four Disclosure Methods

Food manufacturing companies (including makers of dietary supplements) can make disclosure by one of these four methods:

The “Bioengineered” symbol;

Printed text (“bioengineered food” or “contains bioengineered food ingredients”);

An electronic or digital link accompanied by a statement such as “Scan here for more food information” accompanied by a telephone number;

The statement “Text [command word] to [number] for bioengineered food information” followed by an immediate text message sent to the consumer’s mobile device with the bioengineered food disclosure.

Additional options such as a phone number or web address are available to small food manufacturers and for small and very small packages.

USDA discarded an earlier label disclosure proposal of “May Be Bioengineered.” The agency adopted the 5 percent threshold amount for disclosure because of the “reality” that bioengineered and non-bioengineered production systems coexist, and that “inadvertent or technically unavoidable” inclusion can occur. A lower threshold, such as 0.9 percent, as some other countries have adopted, “may increase the regulatory burden for producers and food processors,” with increased compliance costs passed on to consumers, USDA explained.

As to be expected, the Final Rule elicited divergent reactions from consumer and industry stakeholders. The Grocery Manufacturers Association praised USDA for making a “sound decision to empower the industry.”

“Disclosure is imperative to increasing transparency, educating consumers, and building trust of brands, the food industry, and government,” says Karin Moore, GMA’s senior vice president and general counsel. “We are pleased that the USDA has now provided a structure for our companies to share this information voluntarily, building a foundation for government to more quickly respond to innovation in food and agriculture in the future.”

While the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is “generally supportive” of the Final Rule, Gregory Jaffe, its biotechnology director, says some provisions are “not in the best interest of consumers.”

Specifically, CSPI would have preferred “genetically engineered” to “bioengineered” because the latter is unfamiliar to most consumers. Additionally, CSPI disagreed with exempting highly processed ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops from mandatory disclosure, and would have preferred making the “Derived from Bioengineering” disclosure mandatory instead of voluntary.