President Obama signed S. 764 at the end of July, making mandatory disclosure of bioengineered food the law nationwide and shifting the focus to the rulemaking process. S. 764 is compromise legislation, endorsed by the National Potato Council (NPC), and crafted by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow.
The legislation establishes federal preemption on food labeling and includes a variety of options for meeting mandatory disclosure including text, symbol, or electronic digital link. Now that the push to pass this legislation has elapsed, NPC has been able to more deeply analyze the good and the bad of this compromise legislation.
The Law’s Benefits
Looking first at the good aspects, the definition of bioengineering as referring to a food “for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature” is one that supports modern agriculture, covers fewer foods, and is considered positive. Broadening the definition to include traditional breeding techniques, gene editing, and hybridization would have been overreach. The benefits of biotech include reduced pesticide use, better water usage, and increased ability to address malnutrition.
The establishment of federal preemption means a patchwork of 50 state laws has successfully been avoided. Under that scenario, many consumers would have been confused about what the differences were by state and whether their state mandated something different.
The nationwide law also helps prevent increased food costs, which were likely under the state-by-state plans. A recent directive from USDA to governors to acknowledge the new law and not pursue further state-based laws also is a positive step.
In the negatives column, there should be serious concern over labeling a food product when there is no connection to a food safety or human health issue. NPC has consistently called for labeling only when there is a proven safety or health issue.
The fact the law is now regulating production techniques that have not exhibited either of these concerns raises alarm and could have chilling effects on biotech. Big unknowns also exist because there are several fruits and vegetables, which are genetically engineered and were not previously required to be labeled and now will certainly fall under the law’s new regulation.
All attention now turns to the rulemaking process, in which USDA must determine the threshold level of GMO ingredients present to trigger labeling and whether to label food products produced from GMO commodities where detection is impossible in the processed product. USDA has a year under the law to complete a study on electronic labeling and online labels, including QR codes, to determine if they provide appropriate access to the necessary information.
Ultimately, the marketplace will determine which of the disclosure notifications are preferred based on consumer demand.
NPC encourages all interested stakeholders to pay attention to the upcoming regulatory process and submit comments when they are sought.