USDA Details Biotech Food Rule

Proposed Rule Lays Out Food Industry Disclosures for Bioengineered Food Products

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The label on these ears of corn from Brussels, Belgium, details to customers that the product is "not genetically modified." USDA this week released its rule for disclosing "bioengineered foods." (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Nearly two years after Congress passed a law requiring the disclosure and labeling of foods with ingredients from genetically modified crops, USDA has opened up the comment period on a proposed rule for creating a mandatory disclosure standard for "bioengineered foods."

Technically, the standard is for foods with ingredients from bioengineered crops, biotech crops, genetically engineered crops or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But USDA uses "bioengineered foods."

The proposed rule is scheduled to be published in Friday's Federal Register.

Congress passed a law in 2016 after multiple states began requiring their own standards for defining genetically engineered foods. Food companies, which had resisted a federal labeling scheme, embraced the idea after realizing how difficult it could be to create different labels to satisfy different states. Companies also believed USDA would be more lenient than states that had passed labels because consumers were resistant to food with ingredients from biotech crops.

The proposed rule is meant to provide information to consumers that the food product they are buying may be bioengineered. It is also meant to minimize the costs to industry in the process -- costs that USDA says would be passed onto consumers.

"This rulemaking presents several possible ways to determine what foods will be covered by the final rule and what the disclosure will include and look like," said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. "We are looking for public input on a number of these key decisions before a final rule is issued later this year."

USDA stated that the Agricultural Marketing Service sought to craft requirements that are clear and straightforward. In doing so, USDA provided a 106-page rule and explainer in its Federal Register notice, breaking down the National Bioengineered Foods Disclosure Standard into three parts with separate subsections and questions for each part. The deadline for creating the new disclosure standard is July 29.

Under the rule, manufacturers would add "bioengineered food" or bioengineered ingredient" to labels. USDA declined to use alternative phrases because "bioengineered," USDA stated, "adequately describes food products for the technology that Congress intended to be within the scope of NBFDS."

USDA defines bioengineered food as containing genetic material that has been modified through DNA techniques "for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature."

Certain foods would be excluded from the disclosure. A multi-ingredient food that has a broth, stock, water, as well as meat or eggs, would not be subject to the standard. For instance, a canned ham with corn syrup would not be labeled. However, a can of soup could be subject to disclosure based on the volume of ingredients.

The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, a coalition of farm and food lobby groups, praised USDA for getting the proposed rule issued. The group said it remains committed to providing consumers information about their food while ensuring farmers have access to tools to feed a growing world population, and providing regulatory certainty to food companies.

"Over 1,100 national, state, and local organizations representing the food and agriculture value chain supported enactment of the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act, because it prevented a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws, that would have cost U.S. consumers, farmers and manufacturers billions of dollars," the coalition stated.

Small food processors, which account for 45% of manufacturers, will be excluded from the rules, but those processors only manufacture 1% of the nation's food products.

The National Grain and Feed Association noted USDA's rule will grant a tolerance level before labeling is required. NGFA noted that there is already a 5% tolerance level for biotechnology presence in the USDA national Organic Standard. Further, some other countries already have a tolerance threshold before labeling is required.

The deadline for comments in July 3. USDA also stated that, due to the timeline for issuing a rule, USDA would not extend the comment period "so it is important that anyone interested file comments in a timely manner."

The proposed rule can be viewed at…

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Chris Clayton