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Final GM food regulations likely to leave GMO-derived foods unlabelled
Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 12 : 00 PM [IST]
Washington, DC
The final regulations for the mandatory disclosure of foods produced using genetic engineering (GE or GMO [genetically-modified organisms]), released recently by the US Department of Agriculture, include provisions which will leave the majority of GMO-derived foods unlabelled, discriminate against over 100 million Americans, and prohibit the use of the widely-known terms GMO and GE, which the Trump administration calls bio-engineered foods.

“The USDA has betrayed the public trust by denying Americans the right to know how their food is produced,” stated Andrew Kimbrell, executive director, Centre for Food Safety, adding, “Instead of providing clarity and transparency, they have created large-scale confusion and uncertainty for consumers, food producers and retailers.”

The majority of GE foods would not be labelled as a result of provisions that exempt highly-refined products of GMOs, and set a five per cent threshold for the unintended presence of GE ingredients, which is far too high - over five times higher than the European Union’s (EU) 0.9 per cent standard.

Highly-refined products made from GE crops, such as cooking oils, candies and sodas, would be exempted if current testing methods are unable to detect their GE content, even though rapidly-evolving test methods detect GE content in products once thought to be free of it.

In addition, instead of requiring clear, on-package labelling in the form of text or a symbol, the final regulation allow manufacturers to use QR codes, which are encoded images on a package that must be scanned. Real-time access to the information behind the QR code image requires a smartphone and a reliable broadband connection, technologies that are often lacking in rural areas. As a result, this labelling option discriminates against over 100 million Americans who do not have access to this technology.

Last fall, CFS forced the public disclosure of USDA’s study on the efficacy of this labelling method, which showed that it would not provide adequate disclosure to millions of Americans. Similar objections apply to USDA’s text messaging option, which will involve messaging fees for some consumers.

Both disclosure methods, as well as 800 numbers, are unwieldy, time-consuming, and clearly designed to inhibit rather than facilitate access to GE content information.

“USDA’s own study found that QR codes are inherently discriminatory against the one-third of Americans who do not own smartphones or those without access to the Internet. These are predominantly rural, low-income and elderly populations,” said Andrew.

“On-package text or symbol labelling is the only fair and effective means of disclosure for GE foods,” he added.

When it comes to on-package text or symbols, the final regulations prohibit the terms best known to the public – GMO and genetically-engineered – and instead only permit the unfamiliar term bioengineered, which most consumers associate with biomedical technology.

Genetic engineering and GMO have been the terms used by consumers, companies and regulators for over 30 years. Many food companies have long used the terms genetic engineered, GE, or GMO, and thousands of products are currently labelled as such (for instance, non-GMO).

“USDA’s prohibition of the well-established terms, GE and GMO, on food labels will confuse and mislead consumers,” said Andrew.

“Right now, organic and certified non-GMO project labels remain the only dependable way to avoid GMOs,” stated Rebecca Spector, West Coast director, Centre for Food Safety.

“We applaud food companies like Campbell’s, Mars, and Danone for committing to on-package labelling and we urge companies such as Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, and General Mills to follow suit or they will face consumer anger, frustration and corporate campaigns,” she added.
The regulations come out of a 2016 law signed by the then US president Barack Obama prohibiting state GE labelling laws and creating a federal disclosure programme. The regulations are effective beginning January 2020. The labelling is required to be implemented by food manufacturers in January 2022.

“Unfortunately, instead of putting this issue behind us, these regulations will almost certainly lead to litigation, more state legislation, and efforts to amend the federal law,” stated George Kimbrell, CFS legal director, adding, “We will explore all legal avenues to ensure meaningful labelling and protect the public’s right to know.”
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