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GMO Labelling Bill Signed into Law

President Obama signed into law on 29 July legislation (S. 764) establishing the first mandatory federal label for food products containing genetically modified organisms. The legislation is the result of a bi-partisan compromise that aims to counter a Vermont GMO labelling law that took effect on 1 July as well as the potential proliferation of additional and varying state-level standards. However, various consumer and environmental groups have described the new law as deeply flawed and discriminatory and believe it fails to provide any meaningful federal labelling requirement and could undermine U.S. standards for organic food.

S. 764 immediately prohibits states or other entities from mandating labels of food or seed that is genetically engineered. Instead, the U.S. Department of Agriculture must establish within two years (by 29 July 2018) through rulemaking a uniform national disclosure standard for human food that is or may be bioengineered. This standard will include several options for compliance, including text on package, a symbol, or a link to a website (QR code or similar technology). Foods in which meat, poultry and egg products are the main ingredient will be exempted, as will very small manufacturers and restaurants. The USDA must provide alternative reasonable disclosure options for food containers in small or very small packages. In addition, the agency is prohibited from considering any food product derived from an animal to be bioengineered solely because the animal may have eaten feed consisting of a bioengineered substance.

For purposes of the regulations promulgated and food disclosures made pursuant to the new law, a bioengineered food that has successfully completed the pre-market federal regulatory review process may not be treated as safer than, or not as safe as, a non-bioengineered counterpart of the food solely because the food is bioengineered or produced or developed with the use of bioengineering. The law also provides that, in the case of a food certified under the national organic programme established under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the certification will be considered sufficient to make a claim regarding the absence of bioengineering in the food, such as “non bioengineered,” “non-GMO” or another similar claim.  

The Center for Food Safety reiterated its strong opposition to the legislation in a 29 July press release, warning about the use of QR codes, 1-800 numbers and other difficult-to-access technology instead of clear, on-package text to label food products. The association believes the law “sets a dangerous precedent to override the sovereignty of states” and includes a narrow and ambiguous definition of bioengineering that could exempt from labelling many foods from GE sources.

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