By Sharon Treat, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
IATP recently submitted comments on the U.S Department of Agriculture’s proposed GMO disclosure rule. When the record closed at midnight on July 3, more than 14,000 comments had been submitted. Most, like ours, strongly criticized the proposed rule as ineffective and discriminatory. The proposal would not require clear on-label GMO information but instead would exclude the vast majority of foods from the rule’s requirements, allow manufacturers to use a digital link such as a QR Code to provide information, and use the unfamiliar term “BE” (for Bio-Engineered) instead of “GE” or “GMO”. We pointed out that if adopted as proposed, the rule will decrease the availability and accuracy of information provided to consumers. If adopted as is, not only would the proposed rule create a misleading, ineffective and ultimately unworkable federal standard, but it will cause confusion with respect to voluntary GMO-free labeling certification already in widespread use. As we stated in our comments, “Fundamentally, the rule taken in its entirety appears designed to obfuscate, rather than disclose, information.”
IATP’s analysis found that the proposed rule fails on several counts to meet critical requirements of the law establishing the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. While this law, enacted in 2016, was no model of transparency – it was nicknamed the “DARK Act”– the proposal does not meet even the minimal standards established by Congress. Instead, USDA has proposed a Rube Goldberg-esque scheme that is functionally ineffective, discriminatory, and unsupported by the evidence. Among our critiques:
- The proposed definition of “bioengineered” includes only whole foods, exempting from the rule’s requirements the vast majority of food productscontaining genetically engineered ingredients, which are mostly in processed foods containing ingredients such as sucrose; dextrose; corn-starch; high-fructose corn syrup; and corn, canola, and soybean oils.
- The definition of “bioengineered” does not clearly include newer genetic modification techniques such as gene-editing, synthetic biology and RNAi.
- The proposed “BE” symbols, which incorporate suns and “smiley faces,” do not comply with the law’s mandate that the label must be neutral with respect to whether a bioengineered food is safer than or less safe than its non-bioengineered counterpart. A simple on-package label without cartoon images will much more effectively convey the required information and do so in a neutral manner, a premise supported by a recent study of Vermont’s short-lived mandatory GMO labeling law, which found that straightforward on-package GE labeling resulted in a reduction in consumer opposition to GE food.
- The proposal fails to provide real-time information that shoppers can use to compare products, and it allows manufacturers to use discriminatory electronic disclosure methods such as QR codes. Older people, African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, low income people and people in rural communities disproportionately lack access to adequate smartphone service needed to access digital or electronic disclosures. In fact, the proposed rule ignores evidence in USDA’s own report that identified numerous technological challenges to accessing information through digital means. The report found that the QR code technology USDA chose, rather than using tried-and-true on-package labels, didn’t work even when consumers had a smartphone and effective Internet access. Even with hands-on instruction as part of a study, many consumers were flummoxed as to how to download an app to read the code and how to scan the code once the app was installed.
- The proposal also ignores the legal requirement that digital link disclosure not include advertising or collect private information from consumers. USDA’s consultant found over 700 commercially available QR or bar code scanning apps, many of which were so confusing and poorly functioning as to cause users to abandon their efforts to access information through the QR code link. The users’ difficulties were exacerbated by pop-up ads in most of the apps – 40 percent of participants in the consultant’s study “struggled to navigate and troubleshoot apps with advertisements.” Such ads are known to collect user information.
- In its cost-benefit analysis supporting the proposal, USDA ignored most of the costs associated with implementing GMO disclosure through electronic and digital links. Instead of maximizing effectiveness and minimizing costs, USDA did the opposite – it selected an option (QR codes) that is both ineffective and expensive.
- We also found that significant provisions of the proposal rule are inconsistent with international obligations and norms, contrary to the intent of Congress. Of the 64 countries requiring GE food labeling, all have on-package disclosure rather than hiding information through a QR code or another electronic link. Other countries do not limit disclosure to whole foods and neglect to inform consumers of GE ingredients such as corn syrup, corn starch and oils. And consistency with international rules such as the Codex Alimentarius standards would require the definition of “bioengineered food” to include newer forms of genetic engineering such as gene editing.
The Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, a network of more than 60 U.S. and European non-governmental organizations, also sent a comment letter on the proposed. (IATP, the current TACD Food Policy Committee U.S. co-chair, has been a member of TACD since 2000.) The letter cited TACD’s resolutions of 2002 and 2016, both sent to the United States and the European Commission, regarding GM labeling of food, including foods derived from new and unregulated genetic engineering techniques. TACD informed Secretary Perdue that “in the Disclosure statute, Congress required that your agency apply the statute in a manner consistent with the United States obligations under all international agreements.” The letter recommends seven changes to the proposed rule that would make it consistent with those obligations.
IATP has called on USDA to make significant changes before issuing the final rule, which Congress mandated must be issued by July 29, 2018. It remains to be seen whether USDA can meet that deadline, and whether there is any chance the agency will issue a revised rule that truly informs, rather than hides, genetic engineering information.