The New Mandatory GMO Labeling Law – What Does it Mean for Farmers and Consumers?
September 8, 2016 | Rose Egelhoff
The campaign for mandatory GMO labeling laws has been going on for years. On July 29, President Obama signed a bill requiring labeling of foods that contain GMO.
As a result, over the next few years food producers will have to provide more information to consumers about the genetically engineered contents of their products. The Mandatory Labeling Bill places the onus on the USDA to develop not only the criteria for labeling, but also what the labels will look like.
Opponents of mandatory labeling argue that labeling genetically engineered foods will imply that those products are unsafe, which they say would be misleading since the FDA and other organizations have determined that genetically engineered foods are safe for human consumption. Those in favor of mandatory labeling, on the other hand, say that consumers have a right to know and to choose whether or not the food that they consume contains genetically modified ingredients.
The law falls short of what some labeling advocates had hoped for. Not every GMO-derived product will be labeled, and labels may not make it clear at first glance whether products contain GMOs. For example, meat, dairy and eggs from animals that eat genetically modified corn or other GMOs will not be labeled.
The law defines genetically engineered food as that which contains genetic material modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques, but only when those modifications “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
The wording of the law does not require labeling of GMO-derived products that are highly refined like canola oil, corn syrup or sugar from genetically modified beets.
However, the USDA General Counsel said in a letter to Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who introduced the legislation, that although the mandatory labeling law does not require highly refined products to be labeled, it is within the USDA’s power to require labeling for those products if it so chooses.
What will the labels look like?
The law gives companies a number of options when it comes to labeling products. Companies may use a symbol, or text that indicates whether the product is non-GMO or not. Or they may provide a phone number, website, or QR code — squares of black-and-white pixels — that consumers can scan with a smartphone camera to get more information.
In a letter to the Senate on June 27, more than 70 groups including the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch claimed that allowing QR codes will discriminate against rural, low income and elderly people, who can neither afford nor easily utilize a smartphone.
“Because of their lack of access to smart phones, more than 50% of rural and low income populations, and more than 65% of the elderly, will have no access to these labels,” the letter said.
The labeling law gives the USDA one year to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether or not QR codes would limit consumer access to GMO labeling information.
Reactions to the law
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and other industry groups have praised the legislation.
The law “brings consistency to the marketplace and prevents the negative ramifications of conflicting state and national food labeling standards,” said NCGA President Chip Bowling in a statement on the organization’s website. The statement added that the law “ensures that mandatory, on-pack labels do not place an unwarranted stigma on safe, proven technology.”
The Organic Trade Association also supports the law, which it called “a constructive solution to a complex issue.” The organization’s support stemmed in part from a provision of the law that allows certified organic products to be labeled as non-GMO, which means less red tape for producers of organic certified products who want to be labeled as non-GMO. USDA regulations already prohibit organic products from containing GMOs.
Many pro-labeling organizations were less pleased. The Center for Food Safety called the bill “a sham and a national embarrassment,” slamming QR codes as inaccessible and saying that the bill exempts too many products from labeling.
What does it mean for farmers?
It could take as long as two years for the USDA to come out with guidelines for GMO labeling. Small manufacturers with less than 500 employees (including farmers involved with creating value-added products) will have an extra year to comply with regulations. Very small food manufacturers who make less than $1 million in sales per year are exempt as are restaurants and other retail establishments, so many small farmers who sell value-added products or sell to retail will be free to choose whether they label their products or not.
Penn State Extension Educator Heather Manzo told Seedstock that the legislation will affect the producers of commodity crops, “because their wholesale customers will be the ones to comply with the legislation, and therefore the farmers will have to comply with whatever policies their customers create in response to legislation.”
She added that the regulations will impact farmers’ marketing plans, marketing materials and business planning as they shape their businesses to meet regulations, but emphasized that until the USDA comes out with specific rules for labeling, “it is all speculation.”
Whatever rules the USDA settles on, the law ensures that labeling rules will be standard across the country. While this is most valuable to larger national companies, it could simplify labeling decisions for any farmer doing business across state lines.
Andrianna Natsoulas, the executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), said that the new federal legislation prevents transparency while simultaneously forbidding states from implementing their own labeling measures, which is bad for farmers.
“We’re going to keep pushing for clear, transparent labeling that allows consumers the right to choose and allows farmers fair access to market,” said Natsoulas.
The USDA is required to consider every comment that they receive related to labeling of products containing GMO. The process of considering these comments and formulating GMO labeling regulations will be slow and laborious.
According to Reana Kovalcik, Associate Director of Communications and Development at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “the labeling bill has the potential to increase transparency but the devil is in the details, and USDA is tasked with parsing out those details… Now we must wait and see what actually happens.”