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USDA Publishes New GMO Label Rules Ahead Of July 29 Deadline

Angela Evancie
Vermont passed a GMO labeling law in 2014 and Congress pased a national standard two years later which preempted Vermont's law. USDA has released its draft rules and is accepting comments until July 3.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week released its draft rules for labeling genetically modified ingredients that are included in packaged foods.Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard in 2016, just a few weeks after Vermont’s law went into effect, and the federal law preempted the state’s first-in-the-nation GMO label law.

The draft federal rules were released this week as the federal agency tries to meet a July 29 deadline for establishing a national standard for labeling foods that contain GMO ingredients.

The Vermont Retail and Grocers Association is a lobbying group that represents the state’s grocers, and the organization opposed Vermont’s attempt to adopt a statewide labeling law.

VRGA president Erin Sigrist says her staff was still reviewing the draft rules but she said the association supports a national standard for labeling food that contains genetically modified ingredients.

“From the beginning we’ve said that if Congress believes that food containing genetically engineered ingredients should be labeled, then it should be on a national or federal level so that there’s a single law, rather than state by state,” Sigrist said.

"From the beginning we've said that if Congress believes that food containing genetically engineered ingredients should be labeled, then it should be on a national or federal level." — Erin Sigrist, Vermont Retail and Grocers Association

The Vermont labeling law would have required companies to clearly label foods that contain GMO ingredients.

Vermont Public Interest Group executive director Paul Burns says after a federal judge upheld the Vermont law, opponents lobbied lawmakers in Washington to pass a national law, which he says ended up being much weaker.

“When Vermont won the case in federal district court the industry folks said, ‘We are not going to defeat this in court, we need to go to Congress,” Burn said. “And that’s why allies of the giant food industry folks stepped up in Congress to see that this legislation was passed at the federal level and that legislation would not allow Vermont, or any other state, to pass their own law in the future.”

All three members of Vermont’s Congressional delegation opposed the federal GMO labeling law.

Burns says the proposed federal law is full of loopholes, and it gives manufacturers a few different options for labeling foods.

Under the proposed rules manufacturers will be allowed to include the information only in an encrypted symbol that can be read by a smartphone.

Manufacturers would also be allowed to consider a symbol telling consumers there are genetically modified ingredients in the food, or they list it on the packaging.

“We, as advocates in Vermont, were always very skeptical about what the federal government really intended to do there,” says Burns. “And I think this draft rule makes clear why we were concerned.”

"This is not a compromise. This is a victory for Monsanto and for the big food manufacturers." — Paul Burns, Vermont Public Interest Research Group

The new federal rule also changes the label requirements from identifying the food as “GMO” to “BE” which stands for bioengineered, which Burns says consumers are less familiar with.

In the proposed rules the federal agency identifies bioengineered food as food “that contains genetic material that has been modified” and “for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

The federal agency is seeking comments on the rules. The new federal labeling standards will go into effect two years after the law is finalized.

“This is not a compromise.” Burns said. “This is a victory for Monsanto and for the big food manufacturers, and it’s a loss for consumers.”

USDA published the draft rule Friday, and is accepting public comments through July 3, 2018.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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