USDA publishes GMO package labeling rules

Published on
May 8, 2018

The United States Department of Agriculture has published its proposed rules for the labeling of genetically modified food and opened a 60-day comment period scheduled to end on 3 June.

The rules require all foods containing ingredients that have been genetically modified to be labeled as “bioengineered,” indicated through text, electronic or digital link disclosure, or one of three potential symbols, according to the proposed rules, which were published on Friday, 4 May in the Federal Register.

The rules would apply to AquaBounty Technologies’ AquAdvantage salmon, currently the only genetically engineered seafood product approved for sale by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The rules were developed by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which aimed to synchronize the timeline of the requirements with new rules requiring food companies to disclose nutritional information about their products, according to FoodDive. Both new labeling initiatives are required for large manufacturers beginning in 2020, with small businesses having until 2021 to comply. The full rules go into effect by 2022.

The proposed rules call for labeling genetically engineered items as "bioengineered food" because the law requiring the rules is called the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The USDA considered alternate terms including "genetically modified" and "GMO," but ultimately chose “bioengineered” in order to minimize stigma and disparagement of biotechnology, according to FoodDive.

"AMS is not proposing any similar terms because we believe that the statutory term, 'bioengineering,' adequately describes food products of the technology that Congress intended to be within the scope of the NFBDS," the proposed rule states.

The symbols designed by the Agricultural Marketing Service to delineate bioengineered food are “benign and often smiling pictures,” according FoodDive.

“They contain the letters "BE." One shows a plant growing in what looks like a field. Another features a sun with "be" as the eyes and a smiling mouth underneath. A third is a round smiling face with "be" as the eyes, and a leaf inside the "b,’” it reported.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs with the Environmental Working Group, told FoodDive the publication of the rule represented "an important milestone.”

"We’re one step closer to having a national mandatory GMO disclosure system," Faber said. "But, the draft rule leaves many fundamental questions unanswered, fails to provide solutions for consumers without smart phones or consumers with lousy cell service, and fails to provide clear rules that ensure that QR codes will consistently scan."

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) continues to fight AquaBounty’s efforts to bring its AquAdvantage salmon to market in the United States. 

On 26 April, the Food and Drug Administration approved a supplemental New Animal Drug Application allowing the company to raise AquAdvantage salmon at a land-based contained facility near Albany, Indiana. However, Murkowski said in a press release that the company is prohibited from importing the eggs necessary for producing GE salmon at the facility due to new rules she inserted in the recently passed 2018 government funding bill.

“While AquaBounty continues their efforts to sell GE salmon for human consumption, thankfully because of the language I inserted into the FY18 omnibus bill banning the import of genetically engineered salmon, including eggs, they will be unable to produce GE salmon at this facility,” Murkowski said. “But the fight against ‘Frankenfish’ is not over. I will continue to push for clear labeling of this product, if it is to enter into our marketplace, and for proper oversight.”

Murkowski is a sponsor the Genetically Engineered Salmon Labeling Act, legislation which mandates clear labeling of genetically engineered salmon and requires the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to ensure a third-party independent scientific review of the FDA’s environmental assessment for all genetically engineered finfish, including AquAdvantage salmon, for human consumption.

 “Currently, GE salmon are evaluated under the FDA’s New Animal Drug Application – a program intended to oversee antibiotics and medicines use on animals and livestock. The fact that the FDA does not have a proper approval process in place for these new GE animals for human consumption is frightening and appalling,” Murkowski said.” Alaska’s fisheries are world-renowned for their high-quality, productivity, and sustainability, and these genetically modified salmon could potentially devastate our wild populations of salmon and desolate our fisheries. I will continue to work to protect Alaskans, our fish populations, and larger ecosystems from potentially disastrous outcomes.”

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