QR Codes and GMOs: The Proposed Food Labeling Rule
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 products containing 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.