7-14-16-gmo-labeling-lawOn July 29th, President Obama signed a bill into law that requires the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. It was vital for legislatures to reach across the aisle to pass a federal regulation on the labeling of genetically modified foods to prevent each state from following in Vermont’s footsteps and setting state rules for labeling. This would have created a disaster for food companies trying to package their products to be shipped and sold in 50 states with 50 different laws, and would have resulted in increased food prices.

However, bill S. 764 being signed into law was not the end of the decisions that need to be made. The United States Department of Agriculture is now at the decision making helm trying to work out the details. The USDA, particularly the Secretary of Agriculture, has been given a two-year time frame to finalize the regulations.  Secretary Tom Vilsack is tasked with moving quickly to get the process well underway before President-Elect Drumpf brings in a new Secretary of Agriculture that may have a different vision for this legislation than the Obama administration. The USDA’s Marketing Service is in charge of the implementation, but the internal USDA group working out the details includes representatives from the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

gmos-most-testedThe USDA has many important decisions to make that will shape how the law is implemented. For example, they must determine the amount of genetically modified ingredients that must be present in food for labeling to be mandatory.  The USDA is also working to create a symbol for packages that signifies it contains GMO ingredients. The USDA also must decide whether to require labeling if the ingredients themselves have no trace of genetic modification but came from a genetically modified seed. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 93 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn are genetically engineered.

Although the law requires “mandatory disclosure” of genetically modified ingredients, companies can choose from a variety of methods to label their products. On-package labels, a link to an app or website, QR codes, or 1-800 numbers are some options companies will have. Because of the variety of options, consumers may not immediately notice dozens of products being marked as containing GMO’s because the labeling will take on various forms, some more discreet than others. An estimated 75 to 80 percent of foods contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The USDA has many decisions to make, but it is unlikely any major announcements will be made until everything is finalized, which could be up to two years.  Congress left many decisions on the labeling program up to the USDA, meaning this will not be a speedy process. The time span must allow for formal comment periods.  The USDA has a website set up for GMO Disclosure and Labeling, which includes a link to the full text of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law.

christy_allenUniversity of Illinois
Christy Allen


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