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USDA Gives Consumers Sham GMO Labeling Program for the Holidays

Creates Giant Loopholes, Encourages Barriers to Information and Confuses Terminology

December 24, 2018

Amidst the holiday season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its final standard for labeling foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The 63-page report, entitled the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, falls far short of ensuring the public's right to know about GMO-foods. It sets a low bar for assuring consumers about the integrity of the foods they're eating, it allows manufacturers to hide behind a convoluted labeling scheme, and it sows seeds of confusion with basic terminology replacement - substituting "bioengineered" for universally recognized terms "genetically modified" and "genetically engineered (GE)."
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) expressed great displeasure with the final standard, as well as ongoing frustration with USDA's habit of bestowing policy gifts to industrial agribusiness at the expense of consumers everywhere.

"What we really wanted for the holidays was the right to know," said Sarah Alexander, executive director of MOFGA. "USDA's decision to keep consumers in the dark about the foods they're eating is a Grinchy, industrial power grab."

Despite overwhelming public demand for labeling transparency (more than 90 percent of consumers want to know about GMOs in their food), USDA's plan will do little to help consumers navigate the profusion of GMO foods in the marketplace.

The majority of foods with ingredients from GMO sources will be exempt from labeling since USDA has set a 5% threshold for unintended presence of GMO ingredients. By contrast, the European Union's threshold is 0.9%. For foods testing above USDA's threshold and requiring a label, manufacturers may apply QR codes, making it very difficult for consumers to know about the presence of GMOs.

"MOFGA strongly opposes QR codes, websites and text messaging as the principal means of disclosure," said Alexander. "Disclosure should be provided through on-package labeling. Providing information about GE ingredients through electronic means places an unreasonable burden on consumers. QR codes would discriminate against more than 100 million Americans - especially many in rural communities as well as low-income, minority and elderly populations - known to disproportionally lack access to these technologies."

The announcement comes two and a half years after after Congress passed the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know), which called for creation and implementation of a federal labeling standard. Though USDA had an opportunity to pass a clean, consistent and simple policy that would ensure consumer awareness of GMO foods on the market, it opted for a complex, confusing and misleading system that would hinder the access to information.

For almost three decades, MOFGA has advocated for clear, concise labeling of foods derived from GMOs. MOFGA brought its case to Maine's legislature five times before securing unanimous legislative support for the labeling in 2013. Tragically, Congress preempted Maine's mandatory GMO labeling law three years later and reverted back to a policy of allowing voluntary labeling for GMO food producers across the nation.

"While USDA suggests that its final policy requires labeling, it allows deceitful marketing and has no teeth," said Alexander. "The bucolic, feel-good image on the label misrepresents the environmental and economic dangers directly associated with GMO crops."

"USDA had an opportunity to create a meaningful disclosure standard for GMO foods, using neutral symbols and terms that are understandable and familiar to consumers, and to create a symbol that is consistent with federal and international standards," said Alexander. "The term 'bioengineered' and the acronym "BE" are misleading and confusing. Consumers are more familiar with the terms GMO and GE, which have been used for more than 30 years by consumers, companies and regulators.

MOFGA opposes the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture and advocates significant changes in the regulatory framework governing this revolutionary technology. Organic farmers cannot and will not use seeds, plants or animal feeds that have been gene-edited or genetically engineered to incorporate foreign genetic material from other species. MOFGA believes the health and environmental risks of these foods have not been assessed adequately, and the system of federal regulation is in shambles.


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