The USDA Will Release a Final Rule on Labeling GMO Foods

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After a contentious two-year comment period pitted corporate interests against consumer advocates, a rule requiring companies to label genetically modified foods is being finalized this week. The White House Office of Management and Budget approved the Obama-era legislation last week, industry site IEG Policy reports, marking its last step before publishing.

Passed by Congress in 2016, the regulation would establish a "mandatory uniform national standard" for disclosing genetically modified ingredients, pre-empting similar state laws. As part of the rule, the United States Department of Agriculture also created labels: colorful seals that read "made with bioengineered food," which will appear on packaging for foods with a main ingredient that has been genetically edited.

While many Americans fear genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and are increasingly demanding transparency, research has found that they pose no risk to human health. As Pacific Standard has reported, major governmental organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and World Health Organization reached a consensus on this issue years ago. Still, consumer advocates say the labels are necessary to combat confusion, since manufactures have already adopted "GMO free" packaging.

As James McWilliams wrote for Pacific Standard in 2013:

... a rights-based rationale for GMO labeling fails. But this does not mean there shouldn't be a GMO label. Although consumers might lack the right to know what's in our food, or how our food was made, a stronger case can be made that we have a right not to be misled by a food label.

On its website, the USDA says the new standard "will increase consumer confidence and understanding," but the proposed rule acknowledges that it "is not expected to have any benefits to human health or the environment."

When the proposal was first unveiled for comment, many of the food and environmental groups that had spearheaded the call for transparency in food labeling opposed it, criticizing the friendly design and confusing language as "pro-biotech propaganda." (Notably, the labels change GMO to "BE" for bioengineered.) "It's almost a little smiley face," George Kimbrell, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement to the Sierra Club. 

Since then, the USDA has modified its design: The new, slightly more somber labels will adorn packing on GMO foods starting in 2020—exempting certain manufacturers and foods with minor GMO ingredients, according to the proposal.

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