Comment on the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard and Let the USDA Know that You Want Meaningful GMO Labeling
For two decades consumers have been fighting for meaningful GMO labeling that gives them clear and accessible information about the genetically engineered content of their food. This commitment to transforming our food system and providing GMO transparency has resulted in more than 70 state-level labelling initiatives, countless petitions, and ongoing outcry from consumers highlighting the fact the United States and Canada stand alone from 60 other countries in their lack of mandatory GMO labeling. The culmination of these efforts is the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), the United State’s first federal mandatory GMO labeling law.
While establishing a mandatory federal GMO labeling law is an achievement, the draft version of the NBFDS released on May 3rd leaves many questions unanswered and indicates plenty of cause for alarm. GMO labeling that is not clear, inclusive, or meaningful will not provide consumers the GMO transparency that they have been fighting for all of these years. The USDA is currently accepting comments through July 3rd and the Non-GMO Project encourages you share your feedback on this important issue.
Tell the USDA that you want the law to be:
For the Standard to be meaningful it should include ALL GMOs, regardless of whether or not the finished product contains detectable transgenic DNA.
The current draft NBFDS includes an exemption that would leave most GMO products unlabeled. It potentially exempts products in which “the modified genetic materials cannot be detected,” which includes nearly all processed food due to the current limits of testing methodology. For example, products containing a processed oil from GMO soybeans, corn, or canola would not bear a disclosure.
Likewise, new GMOs like those produced through various gene editing techniques (e.g., CRISPR, RNAi) are not yet commercially testable and again would not need to have a label.
To ensure meaningfulness, the NBFDS should use the same definition found in the Codex Alimentarius, a global collection of food safety standards. The Non-GMO Project aligned our GMO definition with this one because it is the most authoritative international definition of genetic engineering—the World Trade Organization even uses it to resolve trade disputes.
As drafted, the Standard has a very limited definition of GMO, one which does not include new genetic engineering techniques. These new GMOs are entering our food system and they must be clearly labeled for shoppers. Rather than inventing a new definition, the NBFDS should align with the definition that is both the most authoritative internationally and which also forms the basis for the United States’ most established non-GMO program (the Non-GMO Project).
To be clear for shoppers the rule MUST allow for disclosure using terms that people understand; the most well-established terms are “genetically engineered” and GMO. These are the terms used by leading scientific organizations and by international authorities including the World Health Organization and the United Nations.
At this time, the only term allowed for text claims in the rule is “Bioengineered,” a medical term that has never been in use in the food industry. For us to truly know what’s in our food, the terminology used on packaging must align with what we already know and what we hear about from media, scientific research, and leading global organizations. A recent 2018 report from the Hartman Group shows that 97% of shoppers are aware of GMOs. Transparency means using language that people know and understand, not misleading them with a new term that is not in use. Ultimately, the law is only meaningful if shoppers understand what the label says.
The rule MUST allow for disclosure using plain English terms that people understand; the acronym “BE” is newly invented and has no meaning to the public. The only acceptable acronyms should be “GMO” or “GE.” Any symbol used must be neutral in tone.
The symbols proposed in the draft rule included an abbreviation of bioengineering, “be.” As stated above bioengineering is not a term that people are familiar with and its abbreviation will only serve to further confuse shoppers. Unlike “GMO food” or “GE food,” the term “BE food” is completely unknown.
The symbol should also be neutral in tone in alignment with other food labeling programs administered by the USDA, such as USDA organic or USDA Process Verified. The symbol included in the draft Standard featuring a smiley face or sunshine is overtly promotional.
To be truly accessible to all people, the only acceptable disclosure is on-pack plain English terms that are well established and well understood by the general public; e.g., GMO, GE, genetically engineered, genetically modified.
The draft rule proposes allowing QR codes for disclosure; this requires a smartphone and broadband connection. These prerequisites discriminate against more than 100 million Americans—especially many in rural, low-income, minority and elderly populations—according to the USDA’s own 2017 study. The draft also proposes a text message option, which for many people would impose additional costs for each message sent and received. Both of these options are time consuming and unrealistic; they impede rather than promote the disclosure the law is meant to support.
Here’s what’s at risk if we don’t comment; the final rule might:
- Exempt GMO foods that have been processed and refined (which is the majority of GMO foods)
- Exempt new GMOs, such as those developed through gene editing techniques like CRISPR and RNAi
- Fall behind the rapid introduction of new GMOs by only updating its list of GMO foods once per year.
- Restrict text claims to the unfamiliar term “Bioengineered,” making it illegal to disclose GMO content using the much more familiar terms “Genetically Engineered” or “Genetically Modified”
- Allow a newly invented acronym, “BE,” which consumers have no way to know means GMO, as well as use a label that has a strongly favorable stylistic bias
Take Action Now
Send your comments to the USDA today and let them know there are critical changes needed to make the NBFDS meaningful, clear, and accessible.
- Your comments must be submitted by 11:59 EST on July 3, 2018 via the Federal eRulemaking Portal.
Step 1: Draft your comments (see talking points below)
Step 2: Upload your comments
Your comments must be submitted by 11:59 EST on July 3, 2018 via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Please note, there is a word limit. If your comments are longer than 5000 characters please upload a letter rather than posting comments.
Here are key talking points for consideration:
1. Include all GMO foods
The Standard should include ALL GMOs, regardless of whether or not they have detectable transgenic DNA in the finished product. This means including:
- Refined, processed food, even if it cannot be tested for GMO content due to the limits of current testing methodology
- New GMOs like those produced through various gene editing techniques (e.g., CRISPR, RNAi), even though they are not yet commercially testable
In order to support inclusion of all GMO foods, the NBFDS should adopt the definition of Biotechnology (aka Bioengineering) used by Codex Alimentarius. The Codex definition is the most authoritative international definition, as it is what the World Trade Organization looks to in resolving trade disputes. It is also the definition used by the Non-GMO Project, which holds the United States’ most well-established industry protocol for GMO avoidance.
The Codex definition is as follows:
Modern Biotechnology – the application of:
- in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or
- fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family that overcome natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection.
2. Use clear terms that the public recognizes and understands
Restricting text claims to an unrecognized single term (“Bioengineered”) would be burdensome and expensive for food companies and misleading to consumers. The rule should also allow for use of the terms “Genetically Engineered” and “Genetically Modified,” as these are the terms that consumers are the most familiar with as evidenced by their use in commerce, the media, and in the scientific literature.
If the rule is going to include a logo, the logo on that acronym should be “GE” or “GMO,” rather than the newly invented acronym “BE.” “BE” is an invented term that has no meaning to the public and is therefore highly misleading. Further, any logo used as part of this law should be aesthetically neutral, in keeping with AMS’s other program logos, such as those used for Process Verified and Certified Organic.
3. Ensure that the disclosure is accessible to all
Two of the disclosure methods proposed in the draft are time-consuming and unrealistic and should not be included in the final rule. Namely:
- QR codes are an unacceptable disclosure method, as they discriminate against more than 100 million Americans—especially those in rural, low-income, minority and elderly populations; the USDA’s own 2017 study confirms this
- Likewise, the text message disclosure option proposed in the draft rule is unacceptable; for many people it would impose additional costs for each message sent and received
The only acceptable disclosure is plain English terms that are well-established and well understood by the general public; (e.g., GMO, GE, genetically engineered, genetically modified.)
4. Provide a reasonable opportunity to comment further
The draft NBFDS published on May 3 is not a complete draft; it leaves many significant questions unanswered. Because of the technical complexity of the issue, there are critical dependencies within the rule that are impossible to adequately comment on without seeing a fully developed draft that indicates clear direction. As such, the public must have another opportunity to comment once a fully developed standard has been drafted.
If you would like to learn more about the Non-GMO Project’s technical suggestions to the USDA we encourage you to watch our webinar for brands and retailers.
The Non-GMO Project Butterfly is More Important than Ever
While the Non-GMO Project will continue to lead efforts to ensure that this law is as meaningful as possible, it’s clear based on what was released that Non-GMO Project Verified will remain the most trustworthy and accessible to avoid GMOs. To learn more about our work please visit, www.nongmoproject.org. Remember, that with every purchase we have the power to impact the way our food is grown and made. Look for the Butterfly when you shop and together we can protect our non-GMO food supply for future generations!
WATCH THE FACEBOOK LIVE: Why you should comment on the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard