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USDA Proposes to Hide Genetic Engineering from the Public

USDA Proposes to Hide Genetic Engineering from the Public
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This might be our last chance to fix this terrible rule. Action Alert!

In 2016 Congress ignored hundreds of thousands of ANH activists and the majority of Americans, who wanted clear labeling of GMO foods, when they passed a “mandatory” labeling bill that would allow food companies to hide this information in scannable QR codes.  We pointed out at the time that mandating a scannable code is meaningless and subverts the whole point of the law, because only 16% of consumers have ever scanned a QR code for any purpose.  Now the USDA is seeking public input on a number of questions that will affect how the law is implemented, and it appears that the law could be gutted even further.

One of the biggest problems with the proposal is that it eliminates use of the word “GMO” altogether and uses the term “bioengineered” instead. Food that is GMO won’t be labeled as such: it will be “bioengineered” or “BE.” This is straight out of an Orwellian playbook. Many Americans know the term “GMO” and can connect it to the labeling debate—so the government decides to use a different term that sounds more innocuous. If the government was actually concerned with communicating information clearly to consumers, they would simply use the term “GMO” and not other terminology with which Americans may not be familiar.

Another crucial issue is the government’s definition of what a “bioengineered food” is. The proposed rule defines a bioengineered food as a food that “contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature”—essentially, combining DNA from two different sources, usually two different organisms.

This definition is entirely inadequate to capture all the different techniques for genetically modifying food that are currently being used or are in development. Gene-editing using CRISPR is one example, where certain enzymes are used like scissors to cut and insert new DNA sequences. This technology is not covered under the proposed labeling rule; the USDA has even said that it does not intend to regulate gene-edited crops. This is unacceptable. As we’ve written before, we are in the Wild West of genetic manipulation, hacking, and experimentation, and we need laws that can keep up with these advances. If the proposed rule defines “bioengineered” so narrowly, it will soon be obsolete and meaningless. “Bioengineered” should be defined to capture the entire gambit of technologies that are used to tamper with the genetic makeup of our food, including gene-editing.

There are two other crucial points USDA is seeking public comment on:

Highly Refined Foods. Some stakeholders, likely from the food industry, are arguing that certain highly refined foods should not have to be labeled as containing GMO ingredients. They contend that, for instance, refined sugar produced from GMO sugarbeets is, at the end of the refining process, chemically identical to refined sugar produced from non-GMO sugarbeets.

USDA is also considering the opposite position. Just because current testing techniques cannot detect GMO material in a finished product does not mean there is no modified genetic material in the food. The whole point of a GMO labeling law is to provide consumers with information, so those who wish to avoid GMO foods can easily do so. If refined foods made from GMO ingredients are exempted, the spirit of the law is undermined.

Threshold for GMO foods. USDA is considering three possibilities for the threshold level for determining which foods are exempt from labeling. The first option would allow an ingredient in a food to have up to 5% of its total weight comprised of GMO material, as long as the presence of GMO substances is “inadvertent or technically unavoidable” to help account for cross-contamination in the supply chain. The second option is the same, except the 5% number is reduced to 0.9%. The last (and worst) option would allow a small amount of GMO ingredients to be in a food (USDA suggests up to 5% of the total weight of the food) before that food must be labeled. USDA admits that the third option would significantly decrease the number of foods subject to disclosure.

All three of these options would undermine a consumer’s right to know. Option two might be the lesser of the evils, since due to cross-contamination it is almost impossible to guarantee a food is 100% GMO-free—and if the threshold were zero, virtually everything would be labeled, and consumers wouldn’t have meaningful information.  Allowing 5% of a product to be GMO without being labeled, however, is preposterous.

USDA is also considering what symbol should be used on food labels to communicate to consumers that it is “bioengineered”. Two of the three symbols being considered are essentially “smiley faces,” with the letters “b” and “e” (for bioengineered) acting as the eyes (you can see the symbols here). Monsanto couldn’t have dreamed of a better symbol themselves! It’s the government’s position that GMO foods are no safer or more dangerous than conventional foods—but that doesn’t mean the symbol should evoke a smiling face!

Finally, the enforcement mechanisms in the law are entirely inadequate. The legislation did not authorize civil or federal penalties for violating the labeling law, so it is up to individual states to impose fines for violating the law if they choose to do so. The USDA does not even have the power to recall products that do not follow the labeling law.

Congress and the USDA have sold out consumers, but we can prevent Big Food and their government cronies from further undermining the public’s right to know if we make our voices heard on this rule.

Action Alert! Write to USDA, with a copy to Congress, and tell them to not to further dilute this already bad GMO labeling bill.   Please send your message immediately.

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