WASHINGTON, Aug. 3, 2016 - President Barack Obama signed the GMO disclosure bill into law on Friday, but many uncertainties remain on exactly how the USDA will implement it.
The agriculture sector can be certain that the final rule will preempt any state labeling efforts that farmers feared would create a patchwork of statutes that stigmatize food with genetically engineered ingredients. The law is also clear in that meat or milk from an animal that was fed genetically modified feed will not need to be labeled as containing GMOs.
But beyond those key victories for agriculture and food industries, USDA will have flexibility when it comes to implementation of some key provisions, and farm groups will be watching the process closely.
“Those are going to be very sticky things for (Agriculture) Secretary Tom Vilsack,” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives who also co-chairs the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food.
Foremost on the minds of many is whether or not a disclosure label will be needed for products like refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup or soybean oil. Most of the sugarbeets, corn and soybeans produced in the U.S. are grown from genetically modified seeds, but virtually all of the end products have been so heavily processed that there are no traces remaining of the gene-altered material.
The legislation is unclear about how USDA should address these commodities, but there are clues as to what USDA will decide. The FDA, in a “technical assistance” document that the agency submitted to the Senate Agriculture Committee and obtained by Agri-Pulse, said products like soybean oil should not be considered as being bioengineered. The law, in defining “bioengineering,” uses the phrase “that contains genetic material,” the FDA said. And if there is no genetic material, commodities like soybean oil would not be covered by the law, the FDA said.
USDA General Counsel Jeffrey Prieto, in a letter to Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, stressed that the department has the authority to require disclosure for “products which may or may not contain highly refined oils, sugars or high fructose corn syrup that have been produced or developed from genetic modification techniques.” Still, Prieto also noted that USDA has the authority to make its judgement based on “the amount of a bioengineered substance present.”
Clay Detlefsen, a senior vice president with the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), said his group and others will be monitoring closely how that ruling goes and weighing in as USDA writes the federal rule over the next two years.
Representatives of the corn, soy and sugar product industries have been amassing evidence for years that their commodities have no GMO material in them even though they originate from biotech seeds. They are expected to present detailed reports to USDA, sources tell Agri-Pulse.
Products that contain just a minute amount of genetically altered material may be exempted from disclosure, and it would also be up to USDA to determine just what that amount would be.
“USDA … has to determine what threshold quantity of bioengineered ingredients by weight will trigger … disclosure,” Detlefsen said. The NMPF is advocating that the threshold not be more than 0.9 percent.
Such a low level, he said, would mean that food manufacturers could add small amounts of bioengineered vitamins to products without worrying about the law.
But the NMPF has other concerns too – specifically, about the production aids used in the cheese-making process.
Chymosin is the most popular enzyme used to make cheese and it is genetically engineered. If USDA decides that using food production aids like chymosin means that cheese is a bioengineered food, it could have ramifications for producers of everything from pizza to nachos.
“We need to understand that is going to be exempt from triggering a disclosure requirement,” Detlefsen said. “I will state that I’m fairly optimistic that (chymosin) will be exempted.”
But he’s not certain, and that’s one of the reasons that he and NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern say they are hoping USDA will hold public hearings over the next couple years as the department goes about creating the rule.
One thing that is certain, though, is that this is one of the biggest undertakings by USDA in years, said Conner, who was a deputy secretary and acting secretary for USDA in the George W. Bush administration.
“This issue will generate tens of thousands of comments, and USDA has to be very methodical and respond to each one of those comments or else they’re opening themselves up to potential litigation,” Conner said. “It’s a heavy task ahead of them.”
One of the challenges USDA is likely to tackle early on is a mandated study on the feasibility of quick reader (QR) technology that Congress is proposing to allow shoppers to scan food labels to find out if products contain genetically modified ingredients. Of the three disclosure choices on food labels - QR codes, a symbol denoting genetically modified ingredients or plain tests – the QR option will likely be the most popular with large manufacturers.
The USDA will have a year to study QR codes to make sure it’s a viable option for consumers. If it’s not, that will add more uncertainty to the outcome of the final rule because it will then be up to USDA to come up with alternatives.
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