USDA to Offer a Voluntary GMO-Free Certification Program

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released information regarding the first government certification and labeling process for non-GMO foods. The USDA’s program would be voluntary, and would require participating companies to pay a fee in order to undergo USDA review. Following approval, the companies would be able to label their products as “USDA Process Verified” and free of GMOs.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the department’s Agirculture Marketing Service, or AMS, will be responsible for overseeing implementation of the certification program. Currently, AMS is responsible for vetting claims that products are “humanely raised” or raised without the use of antibiotics. This verification process also requires payment of a fee.

“Recently, a leading global company asked AMS to help verify that the corn and soybeans it uses in its products are not genetically engineered so that the company could label the products as such,” wrote Vilsack in a May 1, 2015 letter to USDA employees regarding the certification program. “AMS worked with the company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim.” Vilsack has declined to identify the corn and soybean producer that sought certification, and who worked with AMS to develop the certification process.

GMOs, or genetically modified foods, are foods whose seeds have undergone genetic engineering in laboratories to modify certain traits, including drought tolerance and resistance to herbicides. Most of the United States’ corn and soybean crops are now planted with GMO seeds. Many believe that there are untold health dangers to consuming GMOs, and shun them for other alleged side effects like the potential for GMO varietals to cross-breed with wild varieties, creating wild plant super species. Proponents support the use and development of GMOs based on their potential ability to solve the current and rapidly increasing food shortage problem, highlighting the lack of scientific evidence indicating that there are health dangers associated with GMO consumption.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been involved with issues involving GMOs since the 1990s, and is in the process of developing a guidance document on the subject of voluntary GMO labeling practices. According to the FDA’s current misbranding law, “a food is misbranded if statements on it label or in its labeling are false or misleading in any particular.” Additionally, “both the presence and the absence of information are relevant to whether labeling is misleading.” The guidance document provides an overview of other current FDA labeling laws and how GMO-related information may be presented on packaging and in advertisements in order to comply with these laws.

For example, the document notes that use of the term “free” in a non-GMO label may not be entirely accurate due to the chance possibility that GMO derivatives found their way into one of the product’s ingredients. The document encourages producers to use statements such as, “We do not use ingredients that were produced using biotechnology” as opposed to outright claims that a product is GMO free. The document also encourages producers to review the FDA’s current organic labeling certification requirements, noting that these requirements would probably be sufficient to substantiate claims that a food was not produced using genetic engineering.

In 2013, the FDA approved a label for GMO-free liquid egg products and meat products, marking the first instance in which the FDA approved a GMO-free label from a third-party. The label was championed by the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization “committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.” To use the label, companies must submit their products to the Non-GMO Project’s auditing process. Restaurants and delis may also use the label for specific ingredients on their menus.

As the USDA and the FDA continue to grapple with these issues, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is pending in Congress, which would preempt states from enacting GMO labeling laws. Instead, the bill would establish a voluntary labeling system similar to what the USDA intends to establish with AMS. Many anti-GMO groups and state’s rights activists are lobbying against the bill on the basis that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. These groups would prefer a mandatory GMO labeling program, and have referred to the pending bill as the “Deny Americans Right-to-Know” Act, or DARK Act.

The role of GMOs in food production and whether they are safe for human consumption have been hotly debated in recent times. In a number of states, including Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont, passed ballot measures or legislation requiring GMO labeling. The Vermont law, however, is on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other trade groups challenging the bill on the basis that it violates the First Amendment right to free speech. The Maine and Connecticut laws each include a provision requiring the Vermont law to withstand the constitutional challenge before the laws can be implemented in either state.

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