WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 3 invited public comment on the proposed rule to establish the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard as mandated by Congress in the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Law of 2016. The standard will provide a uniform way for food manufacturers to disclose whether a food or its ingredients were bioengineered while preventing a patchwork of state or private labels that may confuse consumers.
“This rulemaking presents several possible ways to determine what foods will be covered by the final rule and what the disclosure will include and look like,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
The 60-day comment period on the rule was opened May 4 with its publication in the Federal Register and will end July 3. The U.S.D.A. said that due to the congressionally mandated timeline for the rulemaking, the comment period will not be extended.
The U.S.D.A. proposes to define “bioengineering” with respect to food as referring to a food “(A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and (B) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” The U.S.D.A. is seeking guidance on what could be considered to constitute “bioengineering.”
The proposed rule said the terms “bioengineered food” or “bioengineered food ingredient” should be used in the labeling. Alternative phrases, such as “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered,” were considered, but they were not proposed because the U.S.D.A. said “bioengineering” adequately describes food products of the technology that Congress intended to be within the scope of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.
The National Grain and Feed Association said as a member of the steering committee of the Safe Affordable Food Coalition, it believed the proposed rule represents a significant step toward establishing a final standard that is designed to give consumers access to more information about the bioengineered content of the food they purchase, while providing for national uniformity in bioengineered food labeling that is essential to providing consumers with continued access to a safe, abundant and affordable food supply.
“Thus, the bioengineered food labeling standard is about providing more access to information to consumers; it most emphatically is not a food safety standard,” the N.G.F.A. said.
The N.G.F.A. commended the U.S.D.A. for proposing to grant a tolerance, before labeling is required, for the inadvertent or technically unavoidable bioengineered ingredients contained in food and beverage products.
The U.S.D.A. requested comments on three alternative methods to determine thresholds for the amounts of bioengineered substances that may be present in a food before it is designated a bioengineered food under the proposed rule.
The lack of a realistic threshold for disclosure would substantially increase compliance costs, disrupt supply chains and raise food costs, the N.G.F.A. asserted.
The N.G.F.A. also commended the U.S.D.A. for proposing to rely upon customary and reasonable business records that traditionally are maintained as being sufficient for documenting compliance with the rule. The N.G.F.A. said that this presumably would include contracts, purchase specifications and confirmations. Doing otherwise would create “complex, cumbersome and extremely costly” recordkeeping requirements within the supply chain that may cause companies to shun the handling or use of safe, wholesome and nutritious bioengineered ingredients in their products, the N.G.F.A. said.
The N.G.F.A. said it recognizes some consumers may want to know additional information about crops used to produce food and noted that the U.S.D.A.’s proposal allows for additional voluntary labeling statements using the same parameters proposed for bioengineered products for which labeling would be required.
Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer, Food Marketing Institute, said, “F.M.I. supported passage of legislation to bring a clear and consistent national standard to provide customers with information regarding bioengineered food products. Since Congress forged the bipartisan compromise in 2016, we have been working with the U.S.D.A. under both the Obama and Trump administrations to help move this process forward in a way that provides consistency and clarity to customers across our membership of 33,000 retail food stores.
“We also aligned with the entire value chain to ensure farmers, manufacturers and retailers are working together to provide accurate, simple and unbiased information to our customers. We remain focused on consumer education, which will help our customers have the tools they need while they shop.”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association issued a statement that read, “We welcome the release of the proposed rule for the Biotech Disclosure Standard and will be working with our member companies to review and develop comments on the draft rule and the U.S.D.A. questions. Our comments to U.S.D.A. will reflect the ongoing commitment of our member companies to providing consumers with the transparency they need to make informed product choices.”