Genetically modified foods are foods that don’t occur naturally. Modified in labs to either withstand poor growing conditions, pests, or for heartier crops, they are bioengineered by scientists. For as long as science has modified the food supply, there have been both opponents and proponents to GMO. Many states, along with government bodies like Congress, have long debated about whether GMO foods should require special labeling, and if so, how they should be labeled.
In 2016, Congress passed a consumer product law that established a national food labeling standard making it mandatory for products with GMO ingredients to be labeled appropriately. The bill was quickly signed into law by the Obama Administration.
Although GMO labeling is now a law and companies are required to disclose information, the regulations about the information necessary have yet to be defined. The US Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet agreed upon full guidelines about GMO labeling specifics. Without those specifics in place, there is uncertainty about what it means for both consumer product attorney knowledge and companies who are supposed to make GMO labels.
Now that there is more of a spotlight focused on GMO, companies are beginning to take another look at the labeling on their products, if they have labels at all. It is unclear how the US Department of Agriculture will define “natural” products, and how far the law will go to single out foods that are altered genetically.
With so many products coming from overseas and very little governing of GMO in general, the labeling might give consumers a false sense of security. Just because a product is missing a GMO label, that doesn’t ensure that all the ingredients are “natural.” This is specifically because, to date, there has been no set standard on what the definition and specifications regarding “natural” are.
The head of the USDA has an enormous task ahead with deciphering how to label and enforce GMO labeling industry-wide. The labeling regulations must include specifics about what foods are considered bioengineered and must be labeled, and it remains to be decided how a company must disclose GMO on its labels.
The US Department of Agriculture has a daunting task ahead in deciding how the labeling must be printed on the package, whether or not to require a hotline for companies to consult with manufacturers, or if each product should contain a barcode that will single out GMO ingredients
Since GMO labeling is now a federal mandate, it leaves the states out of the equation, which helps to narrow the specifications and makes labeling more standard. This means it’s in the hands of one governing body instead of a plethora of them.
The law, however, does not give any assurances that there will be any penalty or punishment if someone fails to follow the labeling laws. The original legislation doesn’t include what to do with companies or products that fail to meet the mandatory requirements. If a product does not follow the guidelines of the law, the USDA has left it up to individual states to take action. Also, food that is made by small companies — defined as those that gross less than a million dollars a year from food sales — foods that are derived from animals, or foods that are served in restaurants are all exempt from GMO labeling.
The problem with deciphering whether the GMO labeling rules are good or bad is that the definitions have yet to be decided. Although the bill was passed almost a year ago, no consensus has been made about how to label GMO and what system to use or standards to follow. Also, there is really no evidence that GMO poses any health concerns to the public, so labeling them might do nothing but cause people to avoid foods without reason. Until more evidence shows that GMO foods have a negative impact on the population, labeling seems muted at best.
If GMO foods are unhealthy as some debate, then the GMO rules are doing nothing but giving the public a false sense of security. Without strict guidelines, checks and balances, and no clear recourse if someone breaks the law, what is the point in having a label besides for “show”? The law should have waited for the research to be conclusive, the laws to be clearer, and a standard definition of how to label GMO. Having a plan of action would have been a better idea.