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USDA considers comments on bioengineered nutrition labels

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Farm and food industry groups continue to maintain some difference of opinion on how food labels should reflect ingredients sourced from transgenic crops – differences reflected in comments the USDA received on its proposed Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) rule to implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS).

The NBFDS is mandated by legislation passed by Congress that calls for national standards for labeling food containing bioengineered (BE) products. These are more commonly known as “genetic engineering” or “genetically modified” (GMO), phrases some large food manufacturers already use on labels.

More than 14,000 comments rolled in to the AMS during the public comment period that ended July 3.

Food and farm industry groups seem to generally favor a national labeling standard. “As farmers, we understand and support the consumer’s desire to know what is in their food,” said American Soybean Assoc. (ASA) President John Heisdorffer, in the group’s comments.

Calls for a national standard, to preempt state laws, intensified in 2016 after Vermont became the first state to require a mandatory GMO label for food sold in that state. The ASA and other commodity groups remain concerned about the reach of the proposed rule.

“Our overriding concern, however, is that some of the options being considered, if adopted, could harm U.S. farmers and stifle innovation in agriculture by presuming or implying that refined ingredients like sugars and oils, derived from a bioengineered crop, contain modified genetic material when sound science shows they do not,” said Heisdorffer.

That opinion was echoed in comments signed by 26 groups from the U.S. beet sugar industry. “Creating any presumption, even unintentionally, that beet sugar produced from transgenic sugar beets is different and less desirable than its conventional counterparts or cane sugar is not supported by science, is contrary to the intent of the NBFDS, imposes a costly and discriminatory burden on the industry and has harmful economic impacts throughout the supply chain,” said the sugar industry groups.

Including highly refined ingredients as part of a mandatory label is supported by some major food manufacturers.

“We support inclusion of highly refined BE foods in the definition of ‘bioengineered food’ so that food originating from any listed crop will always be subject to disclosure unless otherwise exempt from labeling,” said Lisa Thorsten, Campbell Soup director of Regulatory Affairs, in the company’s comments to AMS.

Campbell’s stance reflects what food consumers want, she explained. “According to our research, consumers want to know the BE status of the crop from which the ingredient is made (or is the ingredient itself), not whether refining or processing the crop removes genetic material prior to its use in food as an ingredient.”

There are also differences of opinion about the USDA’s proposal to require “bioengineered” language on the labels. Campbell, and other food manufacturers, presently offer disclosures referring to “genetically modified crops” and “GMO crops.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition took grave issue with introducing BE as the term for labeling. “Relying on  a  new  term will  lead  to  more  confusion  and  therefore  less  transparency,” stated NSAC comments.

There is also disagreement over the threshold that would trigger a mandatory label. USDA provided three options for comment, with considerable technical details and considerations.

Commodity agriculture groups, including ASA, advocated for a 5 percent threshold, similar to the National Organic Program. Others, including food manufacturers that had already adjusted labeling to the 0.9 percent threshold in the Vermont labeling law, said the 0.9 percent threshold reflected consumer concerns.

Comments jointly submitted by the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America suggested the USDA may want to rethink its proposed BE logos.

“The Societies finds that the proposed BE logos confer a value statement using sunshine and smiles. We suggest AMS use a symbol similar to the Organic logo, which confers no positive or negative value to the product,” they stated.