WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2016 - Under the new GMO law, meat, dairy and eggs will be exempt from being designated as containing genetically modified ingredients, but can those products be labeled “GMO-free” even if they’re from animals that ate feed grown from genetically modified seed?

That’s the question that USDA officials say they are wrestling with, and there is pressure coming from both sides of the debate.

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, signed into law by President Barack Obama in July, prohibits “a food derived from an animal to be considered a bioengineered food solely because the animal consumed feed produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered substance.”

The law does not specifically address whether meat, eggs and dairy can be labeled GMO-free, but USDA officials say they believe the issue must be resolved as the department works to write the federal rule to implement the law.

Much of the farming industry believes that there’s no reason products from GMO-fed cows, swine and poultry shouldn’t be able to carry a “GMO-free” label. “It’s just not genetically modified, so it should be eligible for a GMO-free label,” said Dan Kovich, deputy director of science and technology with the National Pork Producers Council.

Representatives of the organic sector, however, are dead set against it. Here’s Organic Trade Association CEO Laura Batcha on her group’s position: “Products from livestock that have been fed GMO feed should never carry a non-GMO or GMO-free claim.”

Some say she’s relying on the old adage, “You are what you eat,” which may not be scientific, especially when it comes to livestock.

“We agree with the law as (it was) passed by Congress and signed by the president – these products are exempt,” said Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council. “It’s like saying I am genetically modified because I ate an ear of corn last night.” 

Kovich said he was unsure how much value there would be in labeling livestock products as free of genetically modified organisms, but stressed the point was moot because the organic industry should not have exclusive rights to the issue.

“GMO-free is not something unique to the organic production model,” he said. “An organic label is a process-based label. I think this GMO labeling bill was very clear that it was not process-based, but it is based on the constituency of the actual product.”

The Food Safety and Inspection Service – the agency with the responsibility for all labeling issues at USDA – does allow for certain non-GMO labeling now, but that’s only for products that producers are claiming came from animals that were never fed genetically engineered feed.

“Labels or labeling may claim that a food or feed ingredients used in the raising of livestock or poultry is not bioengineered when the food or feed ingredients have not been genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology,” according to a recent FSIS statement.

Of course, companies that want to use those labels have to prove to the agency through third-party verification that the cows, pigs or chickens did not eat genetically modified feed.

But that shouldn’t be necessary, some industry officials say.

“The law passed by Congress makes clear that the consumption by farm animals of crops made with biotechnology does not make their milk and meat subject to a GMO labeling mandate – for the simple reason that the genetically engineered traits in crops are not present in the resulting livestock products,” said one dairy industry source who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the unresolved issue. “For the same reason, then, USDA’s regulations should allow food marketers to use a ‘GMO-free’ label declaration on milk and meat from animals fed with biotech grains. Since there is no difference in the milk, there should be no labeling distinction allowed. There is absolutely no scientific basis for claiming otherwise, and it would only serve the interests of a small segment of the food industry that wants to confuse consumers into paying a premium for food products with an absence claim on them.”

Other industry representatives stand firm that when GMO crops are involved in any way in the production of food, that food should not be eligible for a “GMO-free” label.

It’s a question that won’t likely be resolved at USDA anytime soon because of the polar opposite views in the ag sector, according to sources inside and outside of the department. While Congress has given USDA two years to sort it out, some farm groups were optimistic that USDA might be able to finish the rule before Jan. 20, when the next president takes office. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack crushed those hopes earlier this week in an address to members of the National Farmers Union in Washington.

USDA will strive to lay a “foundation” for the rule this year, he said, but it’s going to be up to the next administration to finish it.


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