The federal GMO-labeling law that spurred the rulemaking, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, was signed into law by Pres. Obama in 2016. The law is intended to establish mandatory standards for disclosing to consumers the GMO contents of foods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with issuing the GMO-labeling regulations, received more than 14,000 comments on the proposed rules from individuals, nonprofits, businesses, and others. The agency will now take time to consider the public comments it collected before it issues any final rules.
The end of the comment period this week comes at an interesting time, as two largely contradictory studies released last month suggest that mandatory GMO labeling may either decrease or harden public opposition to GMOs.
One study, co-authored by a University of Vermont researcher, looked at that state's short-lived GMO-labeling law, an awful law that spurred both litigation and passage of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The study "found that Vermont's GMO labeling law may have…decreased opposition to GMOs." But another study issued last month—this one by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation—concluded something quite different, namely that "consumers are generally inclined to avoid [bioengineered] foods if they are aware of them."
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard is extraordinarily problematic, as I described in a May column shortly after the USDA announced it was opening the proposed rules to public comment. One of the key problems with the law is that—though it was billed as a compromise that would put an end to years of ongoing GMO-labeling controversies and litigation—the law instead will likely trigger years (if not decades) of controversy, confusion, and needless lawsuits.
One needn't look further than the USDA's proposed mandatory GMO labels, which the agency publicized for the public comment period, to see the law is a harbinger of nothing good. For example, the agency invited comments on its three different proposed labels for "BE" food. What's "BE" mean, you ask? The USDA proposes to use the term "BE"—short for "bioengineered"—to designate foods that are genetically modified or that contain GMO ingredients.
But a quick Google search of "BE food" shows that roughly no one—neither proponents nor opponents—refers to GMOs as "BEs" or similar. The USDA itself appears to have settled only recently on the "BE" acronym. A USDA hyperlink listed in the agency's request for public comment in this very rulemaking (https://www.ams.usda.gov/?rules-regulations/?gmo) now redirects from the "GMO"-suffixed web address for a page that had been labeled "GMO Disclosure & Labeling" to a "BE"-suffixed web address (https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/be) that's now labeled "BE Disclosure & Labeling." If the goal of the proposed USDA rules, then, was to confuse the public rather than inform them, then the agency accomplished its mission.
A random sampling of dozens of public comments, which I pored over this week, demonstrates both the myriad problems with the law and the deep gulf between supporters and opponents of GMOs and mandatory GMO-labeling.
Unsurprisingly, some critics pounced on the USDA's proposed use of "BE" on food labels.
"I think it is ridiculous to use 'BE' for the designation because the average consumer will have no idea what that means, rendering the symbol pointless and a huge waste of money," writes one anonymous commenter.
Some commenters also took issue with the graphic content of the USDA's proposed labels, singling out the not-so-subtle smiley faces the agency may use as part of its "BE" label.
Many commenters appear to be deeply skeptical of GMO foods. For example, Holly Wells writes "I do not currently support GMOs due to the lack of information on them and the clear manipulation and vast financial resources that are being sent to keep information on GMOs suppressed from customers, and the public citizenry in general." Commenters also appear largely to favor mandatory labeling of GMO foods. Like Wells, commenter Barbara Cole demanded GMO labeling. "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!" she writes. "I WANT TO KNOW WHAT I AM EATING!!"
Commenter Rick Auman didn't comment on the proposed rules per se but did offer a broad (if unspecified) indictment of the current food system. "I think there is enough pollution, corruption in the world," Auman writes. "It's way past time to clean it up, purify everything, especially our food. If you can't eat healthy, we're all in trouble. It's no fun going through life fighting unhealthy bodily conditions. "
Comments submitted in support of the proposed rules were, frankly, difficult to locate.
"I support the proposed rules as a sensible and largely evidence-based approach to informing consumers without scare-mongering," wrote commenter Barry Bradford. Others offered more qualified support. The American Phytopathological Society, which dubs itself as "the premier scientific society on the biology and management of plant diseases," suggests a few tweaks to the proposed rules in its comments but seems generally supportive of the rules. In its comments to the USDA, the IFIC Foundation highlighted its recent study and suggested additional research may be necessary before the USDA issues any final rules.
The USDA has no unique ability to, as the expression goes, polish a turd. As I wrote in May, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act is a bad law, and the passage of bad laws makes drafting good regulations to implement the law nearly impossible.