Jay Sjerven

President Barack Obama on July 29 signed into law an act of Congress requiring the mandatory disclosure of foods containing bioengineered ingredients. The law’s most immediate effect was nullification of Vermont’s on-the-package mandatory G.M.O. labeling law that took effect July 1.

The new federal law charges the U.S. Department of Agriculture with implementation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will not be involved in carrying out the requirements of the act because it was assumed bioengineered foods were neither more nor less safe than foods manufactured by means of other, more traditional technologies. No safety issues are involved.

The law directs the U.S.D.A. within two years to “establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard with respect to any bioengineered food and any food that may be bioengineered” and the associated requirements and procedures. The U.S.D.A. also must “determine the amounts of a bioengineered substance that may be present in food, as appropriate, in order for the food to be a bioengineered food.”

The law specifies food manufacturers must disclose bioengineered foods by way of on-the-package text, a symbol or electronic or digital link with language on the package such as “scan here for more food information.” The U.S.D.A. will determine the appropriate language for an on-the-package text disclosure and develop a symbol that may be used for 
disclosure. The department also will develop standards that must be observed in disclosing bioengineered foods by means of electronic or digital link.

The option for food manufacturers to disclose bioengineered foods electronically or digitally was perhaps the most controversial provision in the act from the point of view of G.M.O. opponents who sought nothing less than universal on-the-package text disclosure.

President Obama signs G.M.O. bill
U.S.D.A. will develop standards and procedures to implement the law.

Congress recognized some grounds for this controversy and directed the U.S.D.A. within one year of enactment to “conduct a study to identify potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods.” The law requires the U.S.D.A. to solicit and consider public comments as part of the study.

The new law states the study should consider the availability of wireless internet or cellular networks, the availability of landline telephones in stores, challenges facing small retailers and rural retailers, efforts that retailers and other entities have taken to address potential technology and infrastructure challenges, and the costs and benefits of installing in retail stores electronic or digital link scanners or other evolving technology that provide bioengineering disclosure information.

The law further states, “If the secretary (of agriculture) determines in the study that consumers while shopping would not have sufficient access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods, the secretary, after consultation with food retailers and manufacturers, shall provide additional and comparable options to access the bioengineering disclosure.”

The study and the public comment surrounding it will be watched closely.

It was not expected the Vermont state government will challenge the nullification of its mandatory G.M.O. labeling law. Vermont Attorney General William Sorrel indicated his office explored options but added, “I don’t see that Vermont will be filing a suit, based on the research we’ve done to date. But there is every possibility that one or more consumer advocacy groups might well file suit. But at the current state of affairs, Vermont doesn’t intend to be suing the federal government.”

The Consumers Union urged food companies already labeling their products as genetically engineered to accommodate the Vermont labeling law to continue to do so while new federal rules are being developed.

“Many companies are already labeling their products, including Campbell’s, Pepsi, Mars, Dannon, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Nestle and Post Foods,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at the Consumers Union. “These companies have already done the work of determining which products have G.M.O. ingredients and have incurred the expense of changing product packaging to include the required words.  These companies have been extremely forward thinking in responding to consumer needs — 9 out of 10 consumers surveyed have said they would like this information on the package.”

Ms. Halloran noted that, so far, Campbell Soup, Mars and Dannon have said they intend to continue labeling even as the U.S.D.A. develops the standards to implement the law.

David Acheson, M.D., president and chief executive officer of The Acheson Group, which provides advisory services to food manufacturers, said, “From my perspective, this is probably about the best outcome one could have hoped for. Food companies are not going to have to deal with individual state requirements, which, if allowed to move forward, would have had both an impact on costs of food as well as an impact on the availability of food on a state-by-state basis.”

Dr. Acheson continued, “While this bill may not have given consumer organizations all they want, it is a practical mid-line solution that hopefully will put this issue to bed permanently and allow food companies to focus on real public health issues.”