USDA has until the Summer 2018 to adopt a standard governing the mandatory disclosure of bioengineered foods. But the law directs that USDA first identifies through a study “potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods."
In July 2016, then-President Barack Obama signed into law the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The law requires labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, but the standard that USDA must adopt is a flexible one—permitting a disclosure through a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link.
Some critics of the GE-labeling law have expressed concern that it could discriminate against low-income Americans who may not have access to technology like smartphones. Per the law, USDA’s study must examine, among other things, whether consumers’ access to the disclosure standard would be affected by the availability of wireless cellular or Internet networks.
Last year in a request for proposals, USDA disclosed it expected the selected vendor to meet the following expectations in designing and conducting the study:
- Meeting the requirements as stated in the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard;
- Providing an understanding of consumer and retailer needs with respect to using electronic or digital means to access bioengineered food disclosures, including underserved consumers and rural retailers;
- Including opportunities for public participation; and
- Informing the agency about the feasibility of solutions to challenges identified for retailer or consumer access for technical implementation and cost.
Peter Wood, a spokesman with USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), said via email the study is being conducted by Deloitte Consulting and is expected to be delivered by the statutory deadline of July 28, 2017.
Megan Doern, a spokesperson for Deloitte, said in an email she had no preliminary findings from the study to share. While she noted Deloitte doesn’t typically share client work, AMS’ Wood said the final study would be available to the public and published on the agency’s website.
Wood said a proposed rule will be published, and open for comment, possibly later in 2017.
According to a campaign in favor of GE labels—Just Label It—studies show more than 90 percent of consumers favor mandatory labeling of GE foods. But in reliance on the federal law, companies have plans to disclose the presence of bioengineered foods in various ways.
Last month, for example, Just Label It and Food Revolution Network urged Nestlé in a petition to disclose GE foods through on-package text. While Mars has pledged to use text in disclosing GE foods, Hershey’s has revealed it will use QR codes, which must be scanned with a smartphone, according to Just Label It.