Remember all that noise not long ago that went on for years about labeling genetically engineered foods, aka GMOs? Four big states put the idea to voters, who all rejected it. Then little Vermont passed a single state law that might have become the national standard by default. But finally, Congress stepped in and turned the issue over in new federal law to the Secretary of Agriculture.

To view larger versions of the proposed BE labels, click on the image.

Just because things finally quieted down for a while it doesn’t mean nothing’s been going on. The National Academy of Sciences reported that genetically engineered (GE) food is as safe to eat as non-GE food; that genetically engineering food has no adverse environmental impact; and GMOs have reduced the need and use for pesticides. It also said bioengineered crops cannot always sustain increased yields and do have their pesticide problems.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue meanwhile is rolling out the new rules for labeling genetically engineered foods. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) as adopted by Congress requires food manufacturers to label food for retail sales to include information about bioengineered (BE) food and food ingredients.

According to a 114-page economic analysis, additional costs for the initial year of labeling is going to cost the food industry and ultimately consumers $600 million to $3.5 billion. That is potentially more than both USDA and FDA spend annually on food safety. The ongoing costs, though, would be less at $114 million to $225 million each year.

The USDA’s economic analysis says the value of the new federal law is the fact that it eliminates the “costly inefficiencies arising from a state-level approach to BE disclosure.”

“The proposed rule is intended to provide for disclosure of foods that are or may be bioengineered in the interest of consumers but also seeks to minimize implementation and compliance costs for the food industry — costs that could be passed on to consumers,” says the disclosure statement.

“To that end, AMS (USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service) has tried to craft requirements that are clear and straightforward, incorporating flexibility where appropriate. Public input has been invaluable to this effort, and public comments submitted in response to this proposed rule will be critical in the development of a final rule.”

Last year, the USDA collected about 112,000 comments on the topic from consumers, food manufacturers, retailers, farmers, processors, state and foreign governments, and others. Through USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Deloitte Consulting LLP was hired to study the technological challenges of BE disclosure.

Now the rulemaking is moving forward with a public comment period that is open until July 3. With fewer than 1,250 individual comments submitted as of the half-way mark in the comment period, interest in the rule may seem a bit tepid in light of the  millions spent battling over the years on the issue. Also, special interests in Washington D.C. are notorious for holding their comments for submission on the latest day possible.

From the individual comments turned in so far, some themes are emerging.

  • Those who long favored labeling “GMO” food do not like the switch to biologically engineered or “BE.” While “GMO” and “BE” have interchangeable meanings, opponents argue the public is more familiar with “GMO” and especially seeing “Non-GMO” on labels.
  • Many are also commenting negatively about the proposed “BE” sunshine labels, especially ones with bright colors and smiley faces.
  • Doubts are being expressed about smartphone technologies that may in some cases be used in lieu of labels.

In asking for public comments, USDA says “nothing in the disclosure requirements set out in this proposed rule conveys information about the health, safety, or environmental attributes of BE food compared to non-BE counterparts. The regulatory oversight of USDA and other relevant federal agencies ensures that food produced through bioengineering meets all relevant federal health, safety, and environmental standards.”

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