Genetic engineering has become a lightning rod in the public discussion of food. Many people refer to genetic engineering—or genetically modified organism (GMO)—as a catchall term for all products developed through biotechnology. However, there are many different types of plant breeding that can use modern technology to enhance plant characteristics without genetic engineering or adding GMOs to a product.
United Fresh Produce Association recognizes that modern technology in plant breeding is a critically important tool to combat pests and disease, improve health and nutrition, and enhance sustainability through reduced need for water and other agricultural inputs, and similar benefits. Modern technology in plant breeding will provide multiple options for breeders in specifically targeting enhanced traits and carefully controlling plant attributes, with and without genetic engineering.
The debate on GMOs came to a head last week as Congress approved mandatory GMO disclosure legislation bill (S. 764) which was driven through Congress by food and agriculture stakeholders because of the fall-out from the Vermont GMO labeling law. The Vermont law, signed by the Governor with a July 1, 2016, compliance deadline has forced the food industry to wonder what this might mean for their sales in Vermont and beyond. There are concerns for business in other states where legislative bodies could start considering their own GMO legislation, creating that patchwork of different regulations across the country. In fact, some major food companies decided to voluntarily begin labeling their products with or without a federally mandated national standard. Conversely, the produce industry has not been deeply involved in the debate about GMO labeling standards, but did support a national policy to eliminate the patchwork of state requirements across the country.
The agreement, crafted by Congress, creates a mandatory disclosure for foods derived from genetically engineered products. It gives companies the flexibility to disclose this information in one of three ways: text on the package, a symbol on the package, or an electronic link to a website where the information is posted. This allows for companies to utilize digital smartphone codes as an option in lieu of text on-package, which was required by the Vermont law. Furthermore, the agreement sets in statute a definition for bioengineering, which is consistent with the current definitions already commonly used for these products. These disclosure requirements will apply to all human food subject to labeling requirements under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, as well as some meat and poultry products. With passage of this legislation, the bill also sets into motion several actions:
- The law would preempt Vermont’s and other states’ GMO labeling laws.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will have two years to come up with the requirements and rules for a symbol that will be used on the label of food with genetically engineered ingredients.
- The disclosure does not apply to food served in restaurants or similar retail food establishments.
- USDA is prohibited from considering any food derived from an animal to be bioengineered solely because the animal-consumed feed is produced from a bioengineered product.
- Foods that have meat, poultry, or egg products as a main ingredient would be subject to labeling under other federal statutes.
- Food products certified under the national organic program can display “non-GMO” label in addition to the organic seal.
Now that the bill has been passed by Congress, attention will turn to the USDA, which is charged with developing the rules around this new law. Some are calling it the “new battleground on labeling,” as stakeholders on both sides of mandatory and voluntary labeling will be talking to USDA about what the GMO symbol should look like, the amount of GE content a product must have to trigger labeling, and other parts of the regulation that will be developed. For instance, how should bulk commodity (i.e., produce) be labeled for consumer notification? If a packaged product contains a sauce or dressing, should the entire package be labeled, or just the added condiment?
While the produce industry has not been deeply involved in the debate in Congress about GMO labeling standards, mainly because there are so few genetically engineered fresh fruits and vegetables in the marketplace, the industry supported the legislation because it ensures that food labeling has a national policy that is not subject to a patchwork of state requirements across the country. In addition, this law provides much-needed clarity for the food and agriculture sector, as well as consumers. The bill puts the requirement for labeling on those companies that introduce these foods into the marketplace, which may reduce the pressure on companies to seek “non-GMO” verified labeling. At the same time, the bill provides significant flexibility to companies with genetically engineered foods as to the manner of labeling, whether on package text, symbol, or link to a website. Finally, with so few fruits and vegetables potentially being of genetically engineered varieties, we strongly believe this is a good opportunity to talk with consumers about the many enhanced varieties that have been developed through modern technology without genetic engineering. Consumers may be surprised to learn that seedless watermelons, multicolored tomatoes, and many other products have been produced through traditional breeding, using modern technology. While the fundamental federal policy has now been set, there is still a great deal to be done to make it a reality.
GMO Labeling – What does it mean for Fresh Produce?
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