Will a new USDA rule on GMO plants affect consumer sentiment?

Dive Brief:

  • Plants genetically modified to make changes that also have been made through conventional breeding will not need specific federal oversight, according to a new regulation published by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
  • The new regulation, which is the first change to how the USDA handles GMO plants since the law was written in 1987, focuses regulation on genetic changes to plants that could impact plant health, USDA said on its website. The former regulation had a long oversight process for every genetically modified plant, and USDA said technology and knowledge gained in the last three decades has helped them learn the types of changes that pose no risk to other plants.
  • This regulation was initially proposed during the Obama administration, Reuters reported. It was published in the Federal Register as a proposal last year, and received more than 6,150 comments. According to the rule — which USDA is calling the Sustainable, Ecological, Consistent, Uniform, Responsible, Efficient (SECURE) rule — the vast majority of the comments were opposed to any bioengineering of plants whatsoever.

Dive Insight:

It comes as no surprise that regulations are being streamlined on plants produced through genetic modification. Although the technology and its use are still controversial, it’s something that’s been done, developed and improved for 30 years. That’s more than enough time to build a base of knowledge and find ways to make regulation more efficient.

Through this rule, USDA puts its focus on plant and crop safety, and which policies and procedures make sense for both those developing crops and individuals who actually do the regulating on the government’s end. In a Q&A document published by USDA in conjunction with the new rule, it states this rule is intended to help spur agricultural innovation and development.

“All food safety assurances currently provided by the FDA are unchanged by this final rule,” the Q&A states. “This rule in no way negatively impacts food safety.”

However, for those who care deeply about GMO food — and there are plenty of consumer groups that do — this regulation is clearing the way for food companies to deceptively get these products to consumers. 

“The result is that government regulators and the public will have no idea what products will enter the market and whether those products appropriately qualified for an exemption from oversight,” Gregory Jaffe, the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s biotechnology project director, said in a written statement. “They will stealthily enter our food supply at a time when consumers want greater transparency, leading to potential consumer backlash and acceptance problems, even for safe and beneficial products. That is why many industry members supported increased transparency.”

At this point, it’s unclear if this rule will have any impact on what consumers know about GMO products. While scientists have said for years that GMO food is safe to eat, many consumers have remained skeptical and demanded transparency on whether their food is made from crops that are the process of genetic modification.

Unless the product has a specific label claim or Non-GMO Project verification, it’s likely to have some GMO ingredients in it. According to USDA data, GMOs are widespread in common food crops — 94% of all soy grown in the U.S., 83% of domestic corn and, according to statistics reported by Harvest Public Media, 95% of U.S. sugar beets

While the federal GMO labeling law is in the process of becoming mandatory —​ manufacturers are allowed to start putting GMO labels on their products, though they are not required until 2022 — it actually may not tell consumers too much. Food products with detectable biologically engineered DNA need to be labeled. Items deliberately containing GMOs have to tell consumers they were made through bioengineering. And products that inadvertently contain 5% or more of biologically engineered material need to have a disclosure. 

The law exempts meat, poultry, dairy and egg products from animals given genetically modified feed, as well as items having one of those items as a primary ingredient, like broth. This means that many food products containing a highly refined GMO crop would not be required to disclose it because it cannot be detected — though the law does allow for voluntary disclosure.

The Q&A about the SECURE rule said the change does not impact the GMO labeling law or which items are exempt from labeling.

“A correlation between products exempt under SECURE and those that do not require a bioengineered food disclosure under the … [GMO labeling law] is likely; however, products are subject to a separate evaluation under each of the respective frameworks,” USDA stated.

Regardless, it is incumbent on food manufacturers to be transparent with consumers about the ingredients in their food. If consumer understanding of this law is that Big Food is using it as an excuse to feed them more GMO ingredients, they may revolt. After all, many consumers still know very little about GMOs — and yet are vehemently opposed to them.

Food makers can take this opportunity to double down on efforts to increase consumer education, providing more opportunities for shoppers to discover where ingredients come from, and assure them that there is nothing unsafe or deceptive in their food products. However, terminology may also help in this regard. This new rule refers to “biotechnology” and “bioengineering,” which many consumers may not associate with GMOs.

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