Food For Thought: The Federal GMO Labeling Law

For several years, legislative bodies throughout the country have struggled with the issue of whether to label food products as containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or bioengineered food. Congress and various states have wrestled with whether to require foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such, and, if so, what the label should look like.

In July 2016, Congress voted to pass a GMO disclosure bill, establishing national standards for food labeling when foods contain GMO ingredients (with certain exceptions). On July 29, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law (GMO Labeling law). While proposed federal legislation in 2015 would have made GMO labeling only a voluntary program, the new GMO Labeling law—the result of bipartisan congressional compromise—makes GMO labeling mandatory. The law also preempts individual state GMO labeling laws.

Although the GMO Labeling law provides information about the different ways companies will be permitted to disclose GMO ingredients, it leaves the specific regulations implementing the law to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish by July 2018. Therefore, some uncertainty about the details of the new law remains for food companies, industry groups and consumers. It also remains to be seen how, if at all, the new law and the buzz surrounding it will cause some companies to modify any prior decisions to label GMO-containing products. Additionally, will the law impact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s highly anticipated definition of the term “natural” in food labeling? Significantly, will the new presidential administration affect implementation of the law, and if so, how? The GMO Labeling law begins a new chapter of the GMO labeling saga, but the tale is far from over.

What Does the New Law Say?
The secretary of agriculture, as head of USDA, is tasked with promulgating the specific GMO labeling regulations, including determining 1) which foods will be considered “bioengineered” and subject to the labeling requirements and 2) the specific ways a company can disclose GMOs on its labels. But the GMO Labeling law requires that disclosure be made on a food label through one of the following ways: text, a symbol or picture, a hotline consumers can call to receive GMO information or a bar code that links to a website displaying GMO information for the product.

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