Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

The USDA’s Final Rule for GMO Labeling Stinks

It's pointless and confusing.

Were these limes grown by Dr. Moreau? We'll never tell! Oronoz/NewscomWere these limes grown by Dr. Moreau? We'll never tell! Oronoz/NewscomThe United States Department of Agriculture released its final GMO-labeling rule last week. As I predicted earlier this year, the rule is a mess.

Under the final rule, a food producer marketing a food that is genetically modified (GMO) or that contains GMO ingredients may comply with the rules in any one (or more) of four ways: 1) by clear wording on a food label; 2) by using the USDA's new symbol "BE" to designate that it is bioengineered food; 3) via a QR code printed on a food label; or 4) by giving the consumer the option to send a text message to the manufacturer seeking more information. Food manufacturers will have until 2022 to come into compliance with the rule.

These silly rules took years to develop. That's largely a function of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act, the terrible 2016 law that required the U.S. Department of Agriculture USDA to develop regulations to implement the law. I argued earlier this year that the real reason the rules took so long to write is that the law mandating their creation is pretty much unworkable. As generally happens, a bad law has produced bad regulations.

In a statement touting the final rule, USDA Secy. Sonny Purdue said the final rule "increases the transparency of our nation's food system [and] ensures clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food."

Supporters of the rules, including leaders of farm-lobby groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, praised the new rules.

But critics of the final rule—including many supporters of mandatory GMO labeling—are predictably (if not justifiably) angry. They're not buying what Perdue's selling.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) called the final rule "an insult to consumers."

The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, founded recently by Mars, Unilever, Danone, and Nestlé after those companies left the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the leading grocery-food lobby group, said in a statement that the new rule "fall[s] short of consumer expectations."

Sharon Jones, an attorney with the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, argued that the final "rule is intended to hide, not disclose, information about genetically modified foods."

These and other critics charged the final rules suffer from a host of shortcomings. Some attacked the comparatively high percentage of GMO ingredients—five percent—that will trigger the USDA labeling requirement. European Union rules have a much lower threshold—just 0.9 percent. Others noted that requiring food producers to use the USDA's uncommon term "BE" (for "bioengineered") foods on their labels, rather than the commonly used term "GMO," will confuse consumers. Still others blasted an exemption in the rules for foods which are produced using genetic engineering but which contain no genetic material—some vegetable oils, for example.

One needn't be a supporter of mandatory GMO labeling to hate the new final rule. Take me, for example. I find the law's chief flaw to be that it requires any GMO labeling at all.

But a deeper look reveals other defects. Earlier this year, I called out two key features of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act as particularly troubling. The first is the fact the law ponders "other factors and conditions" that could trigger mandatory GMO labeling. The second feature, noted above by others, is that the law allows food marketers to declare GMO content via text message, symbol, or a QR code. I suggested that these two features were "certain to sow confusion and spur litigation" in the future.

Nothing in the final rule alleviates my concerns. That's no surprise. Confusion and litigation are hallmarks of the last decade or so of debate over mandatory GMO labeling.

For example, one of the main practical criticisms of mandatory GMO labeling laws—one I've lobbed many times over the years, including at Vermont's short-lived labeling law—was that labeling schemes proposed by anti-GMO advocates were always intended to scare and confuse consumers about genetically engineered foods, rather than to educate them. But the USDA's final rule simply embraces these shortcomings.

What this means is that what we have now is a mandatory nationwide GMO labeling law for people who hate mandatory GMO labeling laws but love the confusion these laws sow. There's nothing to celebrate in that.

Photo Credit: Oronoz/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Jerryskids||

    The USDA's Final Rule for GMO Labeling Stinks

    It's pointless and confusing

    It would be nice to think this is an example of the incompetency push-back - if you do a job badly enough, you'll never be asked to do that job again - but I suspect it's just the regular sausage-making process at work where trying to please everybody pleases nobody. But you'd think at some point people would learn to quit asking government to solve problems when government problem-solving invariably makes things worse.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Amen!

    But at least they're DOING SOMETHING!!!

    While they're at it, I also want labels for all foods that have been looked at by non-libertarians. Food getting looked at by non-libertarians is every bit as relevant to food safety as is GMO status.

  • susancol||

    ^1000!

  • Earth Skeptic||

    The current mode of political sausage-making is more about screwing the other side as it is trying to please all sides.

  • Doug Huffman||

    Very good! Screwing the other side is eristic, contrasted with rhetoric that is logical dialogue seeking truth. Eristic gives a damn about truth.

    Good people ought to be armed as they will, with wits and guns and The Truth.

  • A Lady of Reason||

    Much of the fear of GMO foods is a bit over stretched... Altering some DNA to produce better or a nutrient needed in food will not make you into a radioactive zombie or mutant like in science fiction!
    https://aladyofreason.wordpress.com/

  • siliconflux||

    You are partially correct, but missing the complete story.

    It has more to do with the pesticides and chemicals they "bake" into all the GMO seeds without exception. So if you consume a GMO product its 100% guaranteed you are digesting the latest experimental Monsanto chem cocktail, because these pesticides stay within the seed for the life of the plant. The fun really begins when these latent pesticides are combined with the pesticides they spray on later. While any one chemical might be "safe" for consumption (if you believe the government which I do not), its the combination of these chemicals that are a serious cause for alarm. Its these combinations that are likely causing a host of serious issues in mammals (like birth defects) and its now known to be what is killing off the bee colonies.

  • susancol||

    Wow, it's been a while since I've seen such a bunch of science-free scare-mongering!

  • JFree||

    You should read a bit about the science then. Herbicides are designed against plants - but they also affect bacteria. We have more bacteria cells (mostly in our gut) in our body than human cells. That mass die off of gut bacteria in bees that feed in fields sprayed with herbicide is what is weakening them. The same thing is IMO probably responsible for the huge increase over the last 30 years in intestinal diseases and the inflammatory diseases that often result from that - and possibly even increased obesity/diabetes among those who eat a lot of grains.

  • Rich||

    giving the consumer the option to send a text message to the manufacturer seeking more information.

    Uh, huh. Does the rule require the manufacturer to respond reasonably to said text, or to even *receive* it?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The 'manufacturer" (odd term in context) is almost certainly unwilling to court the bad publicity that would come from not replying promptly.

    I say 'almost' because management can do stupid things.

  • Longtobefree||

    "your call is important to us - - - -"
    Seem like the way things will go with the texting?

    Just not important enough to actually hire sufficient staff.

  • susancol||

    It will almost certainly be a machine-read/automated response process, since the questions are likely to be routine variants of a few underlying points of information. Totally easy and relatively cheap to do--and something that a company could then use to defend against meritless lawsuits based on alleged violations of the regs.

  • Robert||

    I guess since you were on this beat, you had to write something about the final rule, & had to fill up this much space. So it's not your fault you had to make this mountain out of a mole hill.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    I guess since you were on this beat, you had to write something about the article, & had to fill up this much space. So it's not your fault you had to make this mountain out of a mole hill.

    But thank god you didn't try to fill out the 1500 char limit.

  • JFree||

    This battle was lost decades ago - the second hybrid grains were allowed to satisfy commodity contracts. By definition a commodity must be fully fungible. That means brands are irrelevant - and intellectual property in that product must CEASE the second the product is sold. One can maybe claim a property right over that first seed - but not over future generations of that seed. That sort of claim actually precludes the true sale of that product from one person to someone else since it prohibits full use of that property to the second purchaser. They can consume the product but cannot use nature to produce more of the product. If they try, their purchase can be clawed back and rendered void - which means it was never an economic purchase in the first place only a rental/lease.

    It is the glorification of property rights over both markets/exchange - and of govt-enforced property rights over nature itself. Once you head down that road, nothing can ever be simple again. Because, legally, every transaction must be treated as a rental contract - which means buyer and seller can no longer meet without an army of lawyers/bureaucrats in the middle enforcing the 'legally proper' understanding of what the fuck is actually occurring.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Yes, I am eagerly awaiting human DNA being treated similarly! We could do it even now!

    All humans with some European-derived DNA have at least some Neanderthal genes. Since the Neanderthals owned those genes, all who have them now, should be making payments to the heirs of Neanderthals Incorporated!

    So... Who ARE the heirs of Neanderthals Incorporated, anyway? I have some of the hairs of Neanderthals Incorporated, but I doubt that I am an heir...

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Would you feel differently if I sold you sterile wheat? If you are buying a product to consume, then what does it matter? If you are buying a product to propagate it, then your selection of my GMO seeds (and any other conditions of sale and use) are up for negotiation and contract.

  • JFree||

    If you are buying the seed to consume, it doesn't matter. It ceases to exist as seed the moment you eat it. But the economic point of commodity contracts/delivery was that it was a viable true seed. It could be bought to be eaten OR to be planted. If a neighbor's crop failed, other neighbors would be able to take their own grain from the silo and gift it to them as seed for the next year. Farmers could save seed and maybe improve their future crop themselves. If a farmer gained additional land, they could take their warehouse receipt down to the silo and pull out some of the seed they had produced in order to plant it on the new land. IOW - even though they are producing a unbrandable low-margin commodity for the consumption side of the market - that commodity can be a form of short-term money (commodity-backed and convertible money as good in its own way as gold or silver) as well.

    Hybrid or GMO seeds can't fulfill that function. And because the seed no longer serves that pseudo-monetary function; guess who is now on the hook for providing crop insurance and stabilizing rural grain producing areas and such..

    Do I have a problem with someone buying GMO seeds? Of course not. I have a problem with the product of that being mixed in with true commodity seed in satisfying a commodity delivery - so NO ONE ELSE can now purchase that commodity without potentially infringing on someone else's claimed property rights.

  • Sevo||

    "Do I have a problem with someone buying GMO seeds? Of course not. I have a problem with the product of that being mixed in with true commodity seed in satisfying a commodity delivery - so NO ONE ELSE can now purchase that commodity without potentially infringing on someone else's claimed property rights."

    Prove your claim, and I'm quite certain you can't.

  • Agammamon||

    But the economic point of commodity contracts/delivery was that it was a viable true seed.

    There is no such thing as a 'commodity contract'. There's a 'commodity *futures* contract'. A commodity futures contract is an agreement to buy or sell a predetermined amount of a commodity at a specific price on a specific date in the future. Its a risk management tool and its used by those buying or selling commodities for consumption or to sell on.

    Oranges or pork bellies are commodity futures contracts - no one would be buying oranges with the intent to plant oranges nor would they be buying pork bellies in the hopes of raising more pork bellies.

    If you're going to buy for seedstock (to start your own farm, have seed on hand to plant for next season, expand, etc) - those are not futures contracts but just regular old contracts where you layout your specifications. Sure, in some of those contracts you may be buying a commodity - but if that commodity might come with unacceptable strings attached you wouldn't let it be allowed to fulfill the terms of your contract.

  • Sevo||

    "There is no such thing as a 'commodity contract'."
    So that asshole JFree is lying once again?
    Imagine how boring that has become.
    Fuck off, JFree.

  • Sevo||

    "It is the glorification of property rights over both markets/exchange - and of govt-enforced property rights over nature itself."

    It's nothing of the sort.
    Don't like the conditions of sale? Don't buy the goods.
    Or is someone 'forcing' you to buy something again?

  • Bubba Jones||

    All packaged foods will soon have a QR code that leads to a website with a general statement that "may contain or have been fed one or more of the following bioengineered crops: ...".

    This was fun reading. http://time.com/3840073/gmo-food-charts/

  • Sevo||

    "All packaged foods will soon have a QR code that leads to a website with a general statement that "may contain or have been fed one or more of the following bioengineered crops: ..."."

    And the ones that don't will be lying.

  • Agammamon||

    Chipotle, if they knew what they were talking about, would have been basically saying that they're getting out of the restaurant business.

  • Rat on a train||

    and may contain peanuts, cause cancer, ...

  • Longtobefree||

    Only cause cancer in California.

  • flyfishnevada||

    I'm just happy everyone is so worried about protecting me from myself. I feel loved...that smothering kind of love only a bureaucrat can give.

  • PaulTheBeav||

    Ensuring that people have access to the information they want is one of the best uses of government. Give me the information and I will decide for myself what is best for me. I'm not the least bit afraid of GMO foods, but other people are. I will support their requests to be informed and I hope they will support my requests to be informed.

  • U. R. Huyulov||

    Great, let's inform the public.

    Force producers of non-GMO food to slap a label on the product: "Product of random uncontrolled mutation, partly induced by radiation damage, and genetic drift."

    Force producers of organic food to label it: "This food was unprotected from insect infestation, and may have had bugs crawling all over it in the field".

    If this is truly about valuing transparency, you should support these ideas.

  • newshutz||

    "This food was grown in soil contaminated by animal waste"

  • Sevo||

    PaulTheBeav|12.29.18 @ 3:26PM|#
    "Ensuring that people have access to the information they want is one of the best uses of government."

    Are you sure you want packages labeled "This package sealed by people whose eyes might be blue"

  • U. R. Huyulov||

    This is about the best outcome considering the stupidity of the 2016 law. The GMO opponents' dislike for the regulation is a feature, not a bug.

  • dwshelf||

    I don't care. Does anyone care?

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    I also don't care.

  • Agammamon||

    2) by using the USDA's new symbol "BE" to designate that it is bioengineered food

    So we're just going to have 90% of the food on the market with this designation right off the bat then?

    Because 90% of the food we eat has been bio-engineered. A ton of it over just the last couple of centuries.

    Or do they define specific *techniques* of bioengineering - like the ones that actually rely on understanding what and how you're modifying an organism instead of the old ways of 'fuck it up with chemicals/radiation/inbreeding and see what happens' - as being singled out for public hate?

  • Liberty Lover||

    The FDA should have just stopped at no. one:
    1) by clear wording on a food label

    I don't care if you love or hate GMO's, you have a right to make a choice.

  • Rat on a train||

    I want labeling informing if the company was involved in slavery or worked with Nazi Germany. I have a right to have the government force businesses to provide whatever information I desire.

  • susancol||

    Liberty Lover, If *you* care that much, then just buy the more expensive packages of GMO-free foods. I see the labels and the average grocery store even has store brands that are advertised as non-GMO. What you shouldn't have a right to do is force *my* food to be more expensive by forcing "scare" labeling that is scientifically proved irrelevant to *any* legitimate concern of food safety.

  • JFree||

    Why should a GMO patent require people who were producing a product for centuries to add costs to label their generic unprotected product when it is the patent grant/protection that gives that owner the ability to sue and drive EXISTING competition out of business even by the new inadvertent 'pollution' of that product in their supply chain.

    Bowman v Monsanto affirmed that Monsanto owns their patent even through multiple generations of that seed. The only thing that is preventing them from suing ANY farmer (as opposed to those farmers who have specifically signed contracts to use eg Roundup) who finds their seed in their field is Monsanto's verbal promise not to do that. There is no legitimate reason why a generic farmer who doesn't sign their contract - and doesn't benefit from their product - should have to depend on their kindness to stay in business.

    And now you want to force costs on THEM in order for them to signify that they AREN'T using that product???? There may well be some producers who want to use the label 'organic' - and in doing so agree to do other stuff as well that makes their product more expensive. But they are already labelling their product as 'organic'. What you are attempting to do is eliminate GENERIC competition and pretending that these patented seeds are not only the low-cost generic producer but also can eliminate anyone who tries to enter as the low-cost producer

  • susancol||

    A GMO patent does not in any way "force" other producers to label anything. They label their foods AS ADVERTISING (something they'd be doing anyway, I am certain). They have little added cost to do so, and great incentive to do so, as the useful idiots help spread the word that their "non-GMO" label means the food is ever so *special* that it's worth the consumer spending MORE MONEY for it.

    The "Label Evil GMO" mob is only trying to drive business their way through the power of government.

  • gskibum||

    People do not have a right to mandate labels based on mere superstition founded in their own ignorance of science.

    People who believe in astrology do not have the right to mandate a label stating that farmers who are Libras may have grown the beans found in a can of pork & beans or tomatoes in tomato sauce.

    Fear of biotech crops is as unscientific as astrology, and is as unscientific as being scared to go outside on full moon nights because of werewolves. Fear of biotech crops is founded purely in scientific ignorance and ignorance about agriculture. A stupid label in no way improves this situation, and in fact does nothing but reinforce the ignorance.

    A stupid "GMO Inside" label or "GMO Free" label in no way informs which traits that have been expressed in the product, how they were expressed, how the technology is an improvement over vintage breeding methods.

    Such labels do nothing but reinforce ignorance, and state that one breeding method was used instead of several other, older, vastly more error prone breeding methods.

    And no, nobody has the right to mandate labels based purely on their unscientific superstitions.

  • Longtobefree||

    So after all this time, I still wonder if the "BE" was actually a typo no one caught. The "S" is quite close to the "E".

  • cheapmcmbelt||

    Thanks admin for giving such valuable information through your article . Your article is much more similar to https://www.moschinooutletonlinestore.com word unscramble tool because it also provides a lot of knowledge of vocabulary new words with its meanings.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online