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GMO Labeling

For years, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) has supported efforts to bring federal mandatory GMO labeling to the United States. On July 29, 2016 President Obama signed into law a federal labeling bill that recognizes, unequivocally, that USDA Certified Organic products qualify for non-GMO claims in the market place. Those provisions safeguard USDA certified organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. As mandated by the labeling Law (Pub. L. 114-216), on December 21, 2018 USDA published final regulations that put in place for the first time a National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The regulation will become effective on February 19, 2019 and companies will need to comply by January 1, 2022.

The Organic Trade Association is deeply disappointed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final GMO labeling rule and calls on companies to voluntarily act on their own to provide full disclosures on their food products about GMO content.

Consumers have the right to know how their food was grown and processed, and the Organic Trade Association supports transparency in labeling, including mandatory labeling of all genetically modified foods. USDA’s final GMO labeling regulation does not satisfy consumers' right to know if a food is genetically modified. USDA has not delivered a meaningful rule that is accessible to the American public.

Fortunately, the regulation creates an exception for organic products, as it should, so organic companies are not burdened with compliance with the regulation. The final GMO labeling rule allows certified organic products to use absence claims such as "not genetically engineered" and "non-GMO." Organic prohibits GMO inputs so you can look for the USDA organic label if you want to avoid GMOs.

This USDA regulation misses the mark in giving consumers the information they need to know about their foods. Therefore, the Organic Trade Association is urging companies to voluntarily operate with a "consumer first" mindset and to voluntarily label all products and/or ingredients that are not organic and produced through genetic engineering and to do so using on-pack (label) text disclosure with plain English terms that consumers are familiar with. All food that is genetically engineered should be labeled, regardless of whether the GMO material is detectable, and disclosure statements should be made through labels with clear understandable terms. OTA identifies this as the best practice in GMO labeling.

Specifically, this final rule falls short of its purpose to fully inform consumers about GMO content in their food in the following ways:

  • The regulation prohibits the use of clear terms that the public recognizes and understands (i.e., genetically engineered, genetically modified, GMO). Instead, it allows only for the term "bioengineered." This term is unfamiliar to consumers and will have the effect of confusing shoppers and certainly not add the transparency that consumers want. 
  • It exempts refined ingredients and products with undetectable GMO content even if they are derived from GMOs.
  • It exempts new GM food produced with gene editing techniques such as CRISPR and RNAi in violation of commonly accepted definitions.
  • It allows for the option of digital/electronic disclosures rather than requiring on-pack plain English text disclosure.
  • With the exception of organic products, it does not clearly state that products exempt from mandatory disclosure must not by default qualify for absence claims (i.e. non-GMO).
  • The stylized GMO symbol with a four-pointed starburst does not reflect a neutral symbol as Congress intended and is misleading. It could convey that GM foods are safer than non-GM foods, which is prohibited by the statute.
  • The final rule includes a threshold (allowance for trace amounts of GMOs) that is inconsistent with accepted private standards, most of our major global trading partners and unacceptable to consumers.

The Organic Trade Association thanks its members and the GMO task force for their dedicated time and efforts that informed the comments we submitted on the proposed rule and to safeguard organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. We also extend our appreciation to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Just Label It (JLI) for their partnership and on-going support in integrating our advocacy efforts on this critical topic.

Read OTA's comments to USDA on its Proposed GMO Labeling Rule (Submitted July 2018)

Organic Trade Assocation Labeling Policy Position

OTA supports mandatory labeling of all agricultural GMOs and their products. OTA supports the consumer’s right to know, and to choose foods, fiber and personal care products based on environmental, personal health, religious, dietary or other preferences. Labeling of GMO seed, products grown from GMO seed or stock, or made with ingredients and byproducts of GMO crops is necessary for farmer, supply chain and consumer choice.

>> OTA Action

OTA’s on-going work includes weighing in through open comment processes on mandatory and voluntary GMO labeling initiatives and staying proactive on the legislative and regulatory front, with regard to any related bills or regulation. OTA opposed the Pompeo Act, which passed the House of Representatives in July 2015. That legislation, if enacted, would have created a voluntary standard for labeling products as non-GMO – a standard that is unnecessary, does not solve the problem, and would conflict with the existing organic standard. OTA continues opposes any legislation that does not protect organic certification as the gold standard for a non-GMO claim in the marketplace. OTA also opposes any voluntary labeling solutions. 

>> OTA Action

The Organic Trade Association worked with its GMO Labeling Advocacy Task Force and drafted comments specific to the provisions in the law that safeguard organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. Both the analysis and our comments incorporate messages the Organic Trade Association comments submitted to USDA in July 2017 in response to the 30 questions the agency asked to help inform this proposed rule.

The Organic Trade Association’s Top Messages:

Consistent with Law (Pub. L. 114-216), we request a final rule that will put into action the following key organic provisions:

• No USDA-NOP certified products will require disclosure as ‘bioengineered’;

• USDA shall consider organic certification sufficient to make a claim regarding the absence of bioengineering in the food, such as “not genetically engineered,” “non-GMO,” or another similar claim;

• The final rule should clearly state that products exempt from mandatory disclosure as "bioengineered" foods, such as milk from cows fed genetically modified feed, may not by default automatically qualify for an "absence” claim solely because the food is not required to bear a disclosure;

• The definition of the term ‘bioengineering’ shall not affect the definition of “excluded methods” or any other definition under USDA’s National Organic Program; and

• The requirements set under the bioengineered food disclosure will not require that any modifications be made to the USDA organic regulations.

We also urge USDA to:

• Use its authority and broadly interpret the definition of “bioengineering” to include highly refined products such as oils or sugars derived from bioengineered crops;

• Recognize and allow common terms and shorthand that industry and consumers understand, such as “genetic engineering,” “genetically modified,” “not GE,” and “non-GMO;”

• Adopt symbol disclosure options that 1) utilize acronyms that consumers are familiar with such as “GE” or “GMO,” and 2) are consistent with the non-bias (neutral) stylistic tone of other AMS logos;

• Adopt a threshold for inadvertent or technically unavoidable bioengineered DNA that is consistent with the level adopted by other major trading partners (no more than 0.9% of the specific ingredient).

Read our final comments  (Submitted July 2018) and contact Gwendolyn Wyard with questions.

>> OTA Action

In November 2015, FDA released final guidance on voluntary labeling of products containing GMOs – after initially publishing that guidance in draft form in 2001. The draft guidance, released in January 2001, explains that consumers do not understand the acronyms “GMO” and “GM,” and prefer label statements referring to bioengineering. The public comment period lasted until March 2001, although the docket has remained open since then. OTA’s Organic = Non-GMO PLUS Task Force assisted OTA in developing comments to FDA on the common terminology used on existing organic products prior to FDA’s release of final guidance.    

Scott Rice

Sr. Director, Regulatory Affairs

(202) 695-1268