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Countdown begins for compliance with GMO food-labeling rule

Four years after the thunder in Congress over labeling foods made with GMO ingredients, the deadline for compliance with the USDA labeling regulation is in sight — the end of 2021 — despite complaints that the rule is riddled with loopholes that exempt many foods.

Under the rule, food makers have four options for indicating GMO ingredients, ranging from saying so on the package to a fingernail-size QR code, so consumers may find it difficult to identify a GMO food. The labels will say bioengineered, rather than the more commonly used GMO, which also might dilute their impact. And disclosure is discretionary for some GMO ingredients, most prominently corn and soy oils from biotech plants.

Congress passed the labeling law in summer 2016, after months of struggle, in a legislative bargain that called for mandatory disclosure of GMOs nationwide in exchange for pre-emption of state labeling laws. President Obama signed the bill on July 29. After two years of rule-writing, the USDA released the GMO regulation at the end of 2018. The implementation schedule began a year ago, with small food manufacturers coming under coverage last Friday. Compliance becomes mandatory after December 31.

Although the deadline is nearing, the shape of compliance is still shadowy. “Nobody knows the answer to that,” said Greg Jaffe, who tracks biotechnology for the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

As many as one of every six foods containing GMOs may be exempt from labeling because of USDA loopholes, says the Environmental Working Group. Highly refined sugars and oils from corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets were exempted because they do not contain detectable amounts of genetic material, but food companies can disclose them if they want. Soy oil is widely used in packaged foods, from salad dressing to baked goods, for example.

GMO labels appear on some products. Beneath the list of ingredients of many Campbell’s soups is the sentence, “The ingredients from corn, soy, sugar, and canola in this product come from genetically modified crops.” Post Raisin Bran is “partially produced with genetic engineering,” according to the list of ingredients on its label. Candy maker Mars uses the same wording as Post.

Ahold Delhaize USA, the owner of supermarket chains that include Food Lion and Giant Food, announced last July that it will require clear “Bioengineered Food” labels on its private-brand products, reported Supermarket News.

But an amble through the grocery aisles will find few GMO labels, at least at this point, on breakfast cereals, many of which are sugar-sweetened; on pancake syrups, many of which are made with corn syrup; or crackers, chips, and cookies, which use sweeteners and cooking oils.

While GMO labeling was actively supported by some consumer and environmental groups, other issues soon took priority. The Trump administration proposed large cuts in SNAP and proposed rollbacks of water and air protections.

The GMO labeling law is directed at grocery products. Food sold by restaurants, food trucks, delicatessens, or served by airlines are not required to carry bioengineered food labels even if the items are produced with GMOs. Meat, poultry, and egg products are not covered by the labeling law.

The USDA homepage for bioengineered food regulation is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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