Federal Food GMO Labeling Law Enacted; Labeling Proponents Stymied by Limited Disclosure and Access

On July 28 President Obama signed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 enacting a national law for the labeling of food products containing genetically-modified organisms. The act was prompted in large part by various state labeling laws which were vehemently opposed by the agriculture industry and many major food producers. Most significantly a Vermont statute took effect July 1, 2016 that was much more comprehensive than the Federal act and was the only state law to actually take effect. In addition, a number of state laws were conditioned on a critical mass of at least four states with a total population of twenty million persons enacting similar laws. New York was actively considering such legislation which if enacted would have triggered the other conditional state laws. Although the Act will not take effect for at least two years while the U.S. Department of Agriculture promulgates regulations, the Vermont law is preempted immediately.

In addition to prohibiting state labeling disclosure laws, the Act also mandates that any GMO disclosure labeling must comply with the Act, which suggests that voluntary disclosures that exceed the requirements of the Act are also prohibited.

The Act defines a limited set of food products and product constituents that would be subject to the labeling requirement. The Act employs the term ‘bioengineered” to delineate the products subject to labeling. As a result, food product or ingredients produced through gene editing will not be subject to labeling.

The Act label statement required by the Act simply states that “more food information” is available without noting that the information relates to the presence of GMOs. The Act provides for communicating the required information through either label text, through a toll-free telephone call or by way a QRC (quick-read code) on the label. Many major producers are expected to utilize the QR code method, which requires a smart phone to read the code and internet access to reach the information. This mode of labeling drew particular opposition from labeling advocates, who contend that this method is not available to many low income persons.

Despite major industry support for the Act, the legislation prompted schisms within both the major food production industry and the organic food industry. Some major producers continued to oppose any labeling, arguing that ultimately the state laws would not survive judicial review. Disputes among organic interests were prompted by some major players supporting the Act as the best route to nationwide labeling.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with promulgating implementing regulations, which it is given two years to complete.