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US GMO labelling law: A troubling tale of smiley faces, glaring omissions and bio-washing

The Organic Trade Association says it is “deeply disappointed” in the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) final GMO labelling law, which was announced at the end of December.

That the OTA – and others in the US organic community – should take a dim view of the new law’s final shape and form probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. Almost from the start, development of the law has been a troubling tale of smiley faces, glaring omissions and bio-washing.

In polls, the majority of Americans – between two thirds and 90% – say they want foods containing genetically modified organisms clearly labelled. The new GMO labelling law, introduced as a co-sponsored Bill in June 2016, was intended to provide transparency to consumers. 

When the Bill was signed off by President Obama in July 23016, the USDA was charged with developing the new law. The Department came in for early criticism when it decided that companies would be able to meet their GMO disclosure obligations by using the statements ‘Bioengineered food’ or ‘Derived from bioengineering’. 

“Consumer groups and anti-GM campaigners argued that the term ‘bioengineering’ and ‘BE’ were meaningless to the vast majority of American consumers”

Consumer groups and anti-GM campaigners argued that the term ‘bioengineering’ and ‘BE’ were meaningless to the vast majority of American consumers, and warned that the choice of unknown descriptors would create confusion rather than promote transparency. Creating confusion would, they argued, play straight into the hands of the biotech industry and food industry giants who had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat earlier GM labelling initiatives. 

Critics also seized on proposed symbols that companies could use to disclose the present of GMO containing food. One of the symbols took the form a smiley face under the term ‘be’. Another symbol display the term ‘BE’ emerging from sunburst and idyllic rural landscape. There has been criticism too of the third option for GMO disclosure, use of a QR code, which would require a broadband connection and smartphone. 

There is deep concern too that the new program exempts refined products with ‘undetectable GMO’ even if they are derived fro GMOs. And the new labelling law also exempts whole new categories of gene editing technologies such as CRISPR. 

In a statement issued last month, the Organic Trade Association said: “This USDA regulation misses the mark in giving consumers the information they need to know about their foods. Therefore, the Organic Trade Association is urging companies to voluntarily operate with a “consumer first” mindset and to voluntarily label all products and/or ingredients that are not organic and produced through genetic engineering and to do so using on-pack (label) text disclosure with plain English terms that consumers are familiar with. All food that is genetically engineered should be labeled, regardless of whether the GMO material is detectable, and disclosure statements should be made through labels with clear understandable terms. OTA identifies this as the best practice in GMO labelling.

The OTA summarised the many ways in which it says the the final rule falls short of its purpose to fully inform consumers about GMO content in their food in the following ways:

  • The regulation prohibits the use of clear terms that the public recognizes and understands (i.e., genetically engineered, genetically modified, GMO). Instead, it allows only for the term “bioengineered.” This term is unfamiliar to consumers and will have the effect of confusing shoppers and certainly not add the transparency that consumers want.
  • It exempts refined ingredients and products with undetectable GMO content even if they are derived from GMOs.
  • It exempts new GM food produced with gene editing techniques such as CRISPR and RNAi in violation of commonly accepted definitions.
  • It allows for the option of digital/electronic disclosures rather than requiring on-pack plain English text disclosure.
  • With the exception of organic products, it does not clearly state that products exempt from mandatory disclosure must not by default qualify for absence claims (i.e. non-GMO).
  • The stylized GMO symbol with a four-pointed starburst does not reflect a neutral symbol as Congress intended and is misleading. It could convey that GM foods are safer than non-GM foods, which is prohibited by the statute.
  • The final rule includes a threshold (allowance for trace amounts of GMOs) that is inconsistent with accepted private standards, most of our major global trading partners and unacceptable to consumers.

Main image: Proposed symbols for the new GMO labelling scheme issued by the USDA during a consultation in 2018.

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About the Author

Jim Manson

Writer & Editor
Jim Manson is editor-in-chief of Diversified Communications UK‘s natural and organic publishing portfolio. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, and World Bank Urban Age

Articles by Jim Manson

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