GMO Labeling Issues- Vermont Law Takes Effect

Stephanie Strom reported in Saturday’s New York Times that, “Nearly all food labels in Vermont are now required to disclose when products include genetically engineered ingredients. The requirement, passed two years ago, became effective on Friday.

“The rule is the first of its kind in the United States, and although it applies only within the tiny state, it is having national impact.

Most major food and beverage companies have already added language to their labels to meet the new rule, rather than deal with the logistical hassle of having separate labels for different states. Campbell Soup was the first big company to say it would label all of its products, and General Mills, ConAgra, Mars and Kellogg’s followed.”

Ms. Strom explained that, “Vermont’s law requires the labeling of most packaged grocery products as well as any whole fruits or vegetables produced with genetic engineering. That means virtually all products containing derivatives of crops like corn, soy, canola and sugar from sugar beets will need labels, as most of those crops in the United States are grown from genetically modified seeds.

“Vermont’s law is careful, however, to exclude cheese, a big business in the state. Hard cheeses require the use of chymosin, an enzyme found naturally in the stomachs of ruminant animals. But most cheese makers rely on chymosin generated through synthetic biology, a form of genetic engineering.

“The law also exempts meat from animals that have eaten feed made from genetically engineered grains.”

With respect to federal action, the Times article pointed out that, “The Senate Agriculture Committee produced a compromise bill just last week, and even advocates for labeling say it has a good chance of passing — should it ever come to the full Senate for a vote. Companies would have three choices for labeling under the bill — a phrase on packaging indicating that a product contained genetically engineered ingredients, a symbol of some sort or a QR or bar code that consumers could scan with their mobile phones. It would still need to pass the House, which has approved G.M.O. labeling bills in the past, and be signed by President Obama.

“But the bill is facing unexpected opposition from the Food and Drug Administration, which on June 27 sent a three-page letter detailing shortcomings it has found in the revised bill. Among other things, the F.D.A. criticizes the proposed law for assigning regulatory responsibility for G.M.O. labeling to the Department of Agriculture, which traditionally weighs in only on the labeling of meats and eggs.”

More specifically on the FDA position, Christopher Doering reported in Saturday’s Des Moines Register that, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday challenged claims that a Senate bill requiring labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients could exclude thousands of items.

“In a letter to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., obtained by The Des Moines Register, the USDA said it believes that the bill introduced last week gives it the authority to require labels on everything on the grocery store shelf that contains genetically modified organism ingredients approved by the USDA, including highly refined sugars and oils made from commodities such as soybeans.”

Mr. Doering indicated that, “This week, the Food and Drug Administration expressed concern that the legislation’s use of the words ‘that contains genetic material’ would mean that oil made from genetically engineered soybeans, and starches and purified proteins, would not require a GMO label. The reason is that once the commodity is processed, it would not have any detectable amount of biotech ingredients.

“‘In order to put this misinformation to rest, I asked the USDA’s general counsel to confirm USDA’s interpretation of the biotechnology definition in the agreement,’ Stabenow said. ‘As the response clearly states, this agreement would provide the USDA with the authority to label everything that is on the grocery shelf that contains ingredients from GMO commodity crops.’

The USDA would have sole authority for implementing the bill, but other agencies, such as the FDA, can provide feedback. They are regularly asked by Congress to do so.”

And more broadly on the GMO issue, Niraj Chokshi reported last week at The New York Times Online that, “More than 100 Nobel laureates have a message for Greenpeace: Quit the G.M.O.-bashing.

“Genetically modified organisms and foods are a safe way to meet the demands of a ballooning global population, the 109 laureates wrote in a letter posted online and officially unveiled at a news conference on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

“Opponents, they say, are standing in the way of getting nutritious food to those who need it.”

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