Is “bioengineering” US labeling change a regulatory loophole?

Is “bioengineering” US labeling change a regulatory loophole?

07 Jan 2019 --- US policymakers have come up with new rules that exempt certain products that typically come from genetically modified crops from actually having GM status. This includes highly refined sugars, oils, and starches. As the New Year marks the beginning of a one-year transition period for the new rules to come into effect, the US government is being criticized for creating a loophole in standards in terms of how food products are labeled – and it means that GMOs in many foods will go undisclosed. This has lead to concerns of “anti-transparency” towards consumers who might be confused about what exactly is in their food.

It also comes at a time when the Trump Administration's food policies are under close scrutiny for favoring big business over consumer protection, food safety and transparency, i.e. how ingredients are disclosed and specifically, using terms that consumers understand. 

The new rules have come under fire from major players in the food industry, including the Environmental Working Group and Sustainable Food Policy Alliance (SFPA), which includes companies such as Danone, Mars, Nestlé and Unilever. The SFPA was formed last July and is focused on driving progress in public policies that shape what people eat and how it impacts their health, communities and the planet. 

The SFPD claims that the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) final National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, falls short of consumer expectations. 

One of the major sticking points is about the use of the term “bioengineered food” or “bioengineered food ingredient,” consistent with the statutory term “bioengineering.” The SFPD does not believe this term and acronym (BE) on their own are recognized or understood by consumers.

Various companies have been disclosing the use of “genetic engineering” on product packages as a result of the implementation of the Vermont GE disclosure law and on a voluntary basis for several years via the SmartLabel initiative. For consistency across different regulatory agencies, the SFPD suggests that the term “genetic engineering” be used in consumer-facing disclosure statements.

“The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance continues to review the rule. We remain concerned, however, that the standards fall short of consumer expectations and the practices of leading food companies, particularly when it comes to how we are already disclosing highly refined ingredients and the threshold for disclosure,” says the SFPA in response to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) final National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which was established by in late December. 

“Our member companies will continue to take strong, proactive steps to meet consumer expectations for transparency – and we encourage others in the industry to do the same,” the statement read.

Scott Faber, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) echoes the concerns of the SFPA. 

“No one should be surprised that the most anti-consumer, anti-transparency administration in modern times is denying Americans basic information about what’s in their food and how it’s grown,” he says. “The Trump Administration has yet again put the interests of pesticide and biotech companies ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans.”

“The final GMO disclosure rule fails to meet the clear intent of Congress to create a mandatory disclosure standard that includes all genetically engineered foods and uses terms that consumers understand. A fair standard should address the needs of consumers who don’t have expensive phones or who live in rural places with poor cell service but the rule put forward simply fails to do that,” he adds.

“At a time when consumers are asking more and more questions about the use of genetic engineering, the rule will further undermine the technology by sowing greater confusion among Americans who simply want the right to know if their food is genetically modified – the same right held by consumers in 64 other countries,” he further notes.

Faber points out that, despite the new standard, several companies have already committed to voluntarily disclosing GMOs in their products. 

“Despite the disappointing decision, we are pleased that companies that trust consumers – including Campbell’s, Mars, Danone, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and Unilever – will voluntarily disclose all GMOs in all their foods, not just in those required by the final rule.”

“Bioengineered foods”

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, passed by Congress in July 2016, directed USDA to establish this national mandatory standard for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered. The Standard requires food manufacturers, importers and certain retailers to ensure bioengineered foods are appropriately disclosed.

The US government argues that this it improves transparency. 

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

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 January 1, 2020, except for small food manufacturers, whose implementation date is January 1, 2021. The mandatory compliance date is January 1, 2022. Regulated entities may voluntarily comply with the Standard until December 31, 2021.

Food labeling, GMOs and bioengineered foods will be among the big debates of 2019 and will likely be on the agendas of companies, suppliers and manufacturers closely monitoring how government policies will continue to play out under President Trump. 

This could turn into one of the big themes this year as what looks like a marketing shift and terminology change using “bioengineered” as opposed to “genetically modified” could follow. 

By Gaynor Selby

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