The bill – which passed in the Senate last week – will now go to President Obama to be signed into law. After that, USDA will have two years to set up a "national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard" with which manufacturers will have to comply at an undetermined point at least a year after the standard is agreed.
While the legislation requires mandatory disclosures on food labels, however, there is some flexibility over the form they can take - a compromise the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) says it can support. However, anti-GMO activists remain staunchly opposed, primarily because it allows companies to use QR codes or other symbols instead of forcing them to state on pack that a product uses GMOs.
Confusion over the scope of the legislation
While House agriculture committee chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX) recently described the bill as "riddled with ambiguity,” officials from USDA – the implementing agency – have reassured critics that its scope is wider than the wording might imply.
In a July 1 letter to Senator Stabenow, Jeffrey Prieto, general counsel at USDA, for example, said the bill gave USDA the authority to include (under its definition of ‘bioengineered’) “novel gene editing techniques such as CRISPR when they are used to produce plants or seeds with traits that could not be created with conventional breeding techniques. In addition, the definition provides authority to incude RNAi techniques that have been used on products such as the non-browning apple and potato.”
It also gave USDA the authority to include foods made with “highly refined oils, sugars or high fructose corn syrup” derived from GM crops, he added, addressing concerns that the definition of bioengineered foods would exclude such foods owing to its narrow definition of ‘bioengineered.’
"On the surface, we understand how some may be fundamentally dissatisfied with supporting this compromise solution because it includes an option to reveal the presence of GMOs through technology that would require a smartphone and internet access. But it also covers more products than the Vermont Law if it goes into effect.
"When it comes to protecting organic agriculture and trade, we have to take the long view. If you consider what the opponents of GMO labeling proposed, and what the voluntary and state by state options would have offered, it’s hard not to see how this mandatory federal legislation is a constructive solution to a complex issue. The recognition in law that certified organic is non-GMO and can always make that claim is an enormous win."
The Organic Trade Association (OTA)
"Rather than requiring food makers to state the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in plain English, as the Vermont law provides, the new federal law would allow food companies instead to use codes, or to offer phone numbers or website addresses that consumers would need to access for the information.
“This bill is a sweetheart deal for the food and agrichemical industries, who want to keep consumers guessing about the contents of their food."
Gary Ruskin, co-director, U.S. Right to Know
Like many state-led bills, the federal legislation - the result of months of negotiations between Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and ag committee chairman Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) - does not require GMO labeling on milk or meat from animals fed GM feed, or food sold in restaurant “or similar retail food establishment.”
It does not make any reference to ‘natural’ claims, meanwhile, which have been a feature of many state-driven GMO labeling bills, including Act 120 in Vermont.
According to the bill, "The term ‘bio-engineering’, and any similar term, as determined by the Secretary, with respect to a food, refers to a food (A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and (B) for which the modification could not 14 otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature."
Under the legislation, food companies would have the option of disclosing GMO ingredients via “text, symbol or digital link.” Small manufacturers (which are nor defined in the text, but would get an additional year to comply) would be allowed to list a phone number for consumers to call, or a website.
Those using smartlabels or other digital disclosures would have to add a phrase such as ‘Scan here for more food information,’ but would not have to use the term ‘GMO’ on the label, something to which anti-GMO activists strongly object.
Small companies would have the option of putting a phone number or website URL on labels instead of the digital code.
As for measures designed to appease those likely unhappy with the concessions over smart labels and digital codes, the bill says that USDA must conduct a survey no later than a year after enactment date to “identify potential technological challenges,” which may prevent some consumers from accessing the GMO disclosures via “electronic or digital disclosure methods.”
If USDA determines that people are not able to access the information, other options will be explored, says the bill.