The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016, was billed as a compromise that would put an end to years of litigation over the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food. Now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has gotten around to actually writing proposed regulations as required under the law, it's more apparent than ever that the legislation will likely trigger years (if not decades) of continuing controversy, confusion, and court battles.
Despite clear evidence showing GMOs are safe to eat, they have long been targeted by a variety of activists. In recent years, some states responded to the whims of these anti-GMO activists by passing mandatory labeling laws. Vermont's short-lived law was so bad that it drew a First Amendment challenge and, later, spurred Congress to pass the federal standard, which prohibits states from creating a confusing patchwork of such legislation.
If that's all the federal law did, it might be worth supporting. Unfortunately, Congress can seldom resist going beyond the bare minimum.
Two features of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard are particularly troubling. First, the law leaves room for "other factors and conditions" that would trigger mandatory GMO labeling. That vague language is sure to sow confusion and lead to lawsuits for years to come. Second, the federal law allows food marketers to disclose GMO content via "text, symbol, or electronic or digital link." That leaves open the possibility that food marketers could simply use QR codes—those square-shaped graphics that have to be scanned with a mobile device in order to convey any information. Like the "other factors and conditions" language, this is almost certain to spur consumer bewilderment and result in litigation.
The law's vagueness has hampered the USDA's ability to write coherent regulations. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue warned in April that the agency could miss its deadline for introducing the required regulations. Now the proposed rules published in the Federal Register have spurred a backlash from both producers and consumers.
The Alliance for Biotech Facts, which represents thousands of farmers and food manufacturers, says in a statement that forced labeling of products that contain no genetic material at all—such as some oils, starches, and sugars—"would wrongly signal to consumers that there is something different or unusual about these products."
All told, the USDA received more than 14,000 comments on the proposed rules from individuals, nonprofits, businesses, and others. Some of the letters suggest that consumer fear of GMOs far outweighs consumer understanding of GMOs.
"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," reads one such comment.
What's worse, mandatory labeling laws won't put the issue to rest. One recent study, co-authored by a University of Vermont researcher, looked at that state's now-defunct law and found that it "may have…decreased opposition to GMOs." But another study issued in June—this one by the International Food Information Council Foundation—concluded something quite different: namely, that "consumers are generally inclined to avoid [bioengineered] foods if they are aware of them."
It's unreasonable to expect even good regulations to fully resolve contentious social issues. But bad regulations, like the kind the USDA has proposed under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, make it more difficult even to wrap one's head around the terms of the debate.