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Consumer, Environmental, Farmer Groups Demand Strong GMO Food Labeling Standards

Groups demand USDA require on-package labeling, not QR codes; Demand high-processed foods be labeled

WASHINGTON, DC — Today, Center for Food Safety (CFS) and dozens of consumer, environmental, and farming organizations and companies submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the agency’s long-awaited proposed regulations for the mandatory disclosure of foods produced using genetic engineering (GE or GMO).  Collectively, the organizations submitted more than one hundred thousand comments from the general public. The law requires that USDA issue the final rules by July 29, 2018.

One of the major issues with the proposed rules is the allowance of digital QR codes instead of mandatory on-package text or symbol labeling. USDA proposes to allow manufacturers to choose to use QR codes, which are encoded images on a package that must be scanned and are intended to substitute for clear, on-package labeling. Real-time access to the information behind the QR code image requires a smartphone and a reliable broadband connection, technologies often lacking in rural areas. As a result, this labeling option would discriminate against more than 100 million Americans who do not have access to this technology. Last fall, CFS forced the public disclosure of USDA’s study on the efficacy of this labeling, which showed it would not provide adequate disclosure to millions of Americans.

“USDA should not allow QR codes as they are discriminatory and unreasonably burdensome on consumers,” stated Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety. “USDA’s own study found that QR codes are inherently discriminatory against one-third of Americans who do not own smartphones, and even more so against rural, low-income, and elderly populations or those without access to the internet. USDA should mandate on-package text or symbol labeling as the only fair and effective means of disclosure for GE foods.”

When it comes to on-package text or symbols, USDA proposes to disallow the terms “genetic engineering or GMO,” and use only the term “bioengineered,” or “BE,” despite the fact that genetic engineering and GMO have been the terms used for 30-plus years by consumers, companies, and regulators. Many food companies have long used the terms genetically engineered, GE, or GMO, and thousands of products are currently labeled as such (e.g., Non-GMO).

“USDA’s exclusion of the well-established terms GE and GMO as options will confuse and mislead consumers, and the agency must instead allow the use of those terms,” added Kimbrell.

The groups also demand that “highly refined” GE foods be covered, such as cooking oils, candies, or sodas that have ingredients derived from GE crops, but are in processed form such that in the final product, the GE content may or may not be detectable. The groups also demand that foods developed using newer forms of genetic engineering – which often go by different names such as synthetic biology, gene-editing, or CRISPR – also be labeled.

“USDA’s proposed rule is filled with loopholes that will keep consumers in the dark,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Instead of requiring clear, straightforward labels on food packages to allow consumers to make an informed choice, USDA wants to let companies use the deceptive term ‘bioengineered’ and biased, promotional symbols to promote this technology.”

“If GMO labeling is going to be meaningful, it must include all genetic engineering, including CRISPR,” said Dana Perls, Senior Food and Technology Campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “New GMOs should not be sneaking into food and consumer products ahead of health or environmental assessments, regulations and real transparent labeling.”

The signatories to the letter include: Abundance Food Co-op, Alliance for Natural Health USA, Beyond Pesticides, Canada Organic Trade Association, Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center, Center for Food Safety, Cultivate Oregon, Dr. Bronner’s, Equal Exchange Inc, Food & Water Watch, Food Democracy Now!, Friends of Family Farmers, Friends of the Earth, Genesis Farm, GMO Free USA, Good Food Brigade, Green America, International Organic Inspectors Association, Lundberg Family Farms, National Organic Coalition, Nature’s Path Foods Inc, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Northeast Organic Farming Association, Mass. Chapter (NOFA/Mass), Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families, Organic Advocacy, Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, Inc.  (OFARM), Organic Seed Alliance, Our Family Farms, Pesticide Action Network North America, Sierra Club, Soil Not Oil Coalition, Straus Family Creamery, The Organic & Non-GMO Report.

Contact: Patrick Davis, (202) 222-0744, pdavis@foe.org

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