By Sarah Gonzalez, Director of Communications and Digital Media; and Randy Gordon, President
The U.S. Department Agriculture (USDA) on Dec. 20 issued its final rule for the National Bioengineered Disclosure Standard, adopting several of NGFA’s recommendations submitted in response to the agency’s proposed rule for implementing the congressionally required mandatory labeling of bioengineered food.
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, passed by Congress in July 2016, directed USDA to establish a national mandatory standard for food manufacturers, importers and certain retailers to ensure bioengineered foods are disclosed appropriately. Reflecting the statutory language verbatim, the USDA final rule defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through in vitro rDNA lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature. Highly refined foods or ingredients (such as high fructose corn syrup) that do not contain detectable modified genetic material are exempt from mandatory labeling.
NGFA and the American Feed Industry Association submitted joint comments on USDA’s proposed rules to implement the law in July 2018.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue noted in a statement that the final rule “ensures clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food [and] avoids a patchwork state-by-state system that could be confusing to consumers.”
The rule has a Jan. 1, 2020, implementation date, with a two-year phase-in – to Jan. 1, 2022 – before compliance is mandatory.
Key provisions for the grain, feed and processing industry included in the final rule include:
- USDA’s final rule applies to food manufacturers, importers and retailers that package and label food for retail sale or sell bulk food products. Exempt are restaurants and similar retail food establishments, as well as food manufacturers with less than $2.5 million in annual receipts.
- As the plain language of the law specifies, the new rule will require disclosure only when foods contain genetic material introduced through bioengineering. Importantly, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) will maintain and update, periodically and at least annually, a list of bioengineered foods on its website that identifies bioengineered commodities and foods that are authorized for commercial production (shown by the country in which it is produced) for which labeling disclosure will be required unless records are available to demonstrate that the commodity or product is not bioengineered. The initial AMS list includes corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, alfalfa, apple, eggplant, papaya, pineapple, potato, salmon, summer squash and sugarbeets.
- Importantly, exempt from mandatory labeling, pursuant to the law, are animal feed and pet food, as well as meat, milk, eggs and other human food derived from animals fed bioengineered grains or other ingredients.
- A 5 percent disclosure threshold, as recommended by NGFA, appropriately balances disclosure, market dynamics, and international trade, with such countries as Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam adopting a similar labeling threshold.
- USDA will rely upon customary and reasonable business records that traditionally are maintained as being sufficient for documenting compliance with the rule.
- To determine whether a food has detectable modified genetic material, USDA’s final rule allows retailers to use a variety of records to verify that a food is sourced from a non-bioengineered crop. As examples, USDA says these can include: 1) records that verify a food is sourced from a non-bioengineered crop; 2) records to verify that a food has been subjected to a refinement process that has been validated to render modified genetic material undetectable; or 3) certificates of analysis or other testing records appropriate for the specific food to confirm the absence of detectable modified genetic material. USDA says sufficient records may include organic certification, information that demonstrates that the food was derived from a non-bioengineered crop variety and records that show a food originated in an area where the specific bioengineered food is not produced.
- USDA’s final rule allows for voluntary disclosure on labels for foods derived from bioengineered ingredients that do not meet the definition of bioengineered foods because they do not contain bioengineered genetic material. The voluntary disclosure can be made using any of the disclosure methods – text, symbol, electronic or digital link, or text message – that are available for mandatory disclosure, and by using the phrase “derived from bioengineering” or “ingredients derived from a bioengineering source” or a USDA-created symbol. Labeling is required by the Food and Drug Administration to be truthful and not misleading under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
USDA has prepared a series of questions-and-answers on the final rule, which is available here.
The NGFA noted that the safe use of crop biotechnology in food long has been verified by numerous governmental, international and domestic scientific and regulatory bodies, including the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization.
“Thus, the bioengineered food labeling standard is about providing more access to information to consumers; it most emphatically is not a food safety standard,” NGFA noted.
As a member of the Steering Committee of the Safe Affordable Food Coalition, the NGFA said the rule provides consumers access to more information about the bioengineered content of the food they purchase, while providing for national uniformity in bioengineered food labeling that is essential to providing consumers with continued access to a safe, abundant and affordable food supply.
“The intent of the government-mandated bioengineered food disclosure standard is to inform, and not mislead, consumers and this final rule achieves this overridingly important objective,” NGFA noted in a press statement.