This is an excerpt reprinted with permission from The Hagstrom Report, a news service providing original national and international agricultural news to its subscribers.
The Agriculture Department has already established an interagency working group to implement the law requiring labeling of genetically modified products that President Barack Obama signed on Friday, a key USDA official told the American Sugar Alliance here today.
Alexis Taylor, the deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign and agricultural services, said in a speech that USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service will be in charge of the implementation.
A USDA spokeswoman also told The Hagstrom Report that the law already has a section on the AMS website and that the working group will include representatives of the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service as well as other subagencies.
“Fortunately Congress recognized the importance of a national law "rather than state-by-state laws, said Taylor, who has assumed the duties of the Agriculture undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services since Michael Scuse, the undersecretary, has become the acting deputy secretary.
The law preempts state labeling laws such as the one that went into effect in Vermont on July 1. The USDA’s General Counsel’s office has said that the preemption is immediate, but some companies have said they will continue the labels they came up with in order to comply with the Vermont law.
Today Just Label It, a group that has called for on-package labeling and did not endorse the compromise bill worked out by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called on food companies to maintain those laws.
“Consumers have already begun to see GMO labeling disclosures on many familiar food packages as companies prepared to comply with Vermont’s groundbreaking law,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm.
“In the wake of the creation of a national, mandatory labeling system, Campbell’s, Mars and Dannon have already publicly committed to keeping this simple disclosure on their packages as USDA sorts out the rules for implementation of this new law. I have sent a letter to other industry leaders asking them to publicly commit to keeping consumers out of the dark when it comes to GMOs in our food.”
“In recent months, we have seen real-world examples of how clear, on-package labeling can work for both consumers and industry. It is my hope that food corporations reject high-tech gimmicks, like QR codes, and stick with the simple, nonjudgmental disclosures we have already seen popping up on shelves across the country,” Hirshberg added.
The White House did not make a big deal of Obama signing the bill. Rather than the signing statements that accompany some bills, the White House Office of the Press Secretary said simply that Obama had signed “S. 764, which directs the secretary of Agriculture to establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard,” along with a list of other bills, including the naming of post offices.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food praised Obama for signing the bill.
“We are very pleased that President Obama has signed this vitally important legislation into law, creating a sensible disclosure standard that is transparent and consistent across all 50 states,” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and CFSAF co-chair.
“Over the last two years, our growing coalition of agriculture and food groups from farm to fork has proven to be a strong and effective advocate before policymakers on this issue.”
“As Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts has observed, America’s food producing community has never been more united behind an issue,” said Chuck Conner, CFSAF co-chair and president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
“As this law enters the rule-making process at USDA, the same farm to fork coalition that helped get this bill enacted into law will work to ensure that implementation is squarely in line with Congressional intent and in a manner that best serves consumers, farmers and food companies.”
American Soybean Association President Richard Wilkins, a soybean farmer from Greenwood, Del., said “This law will provide stability in the marketplace for both producers and consumers, while avoiding a messy patchwork of state laws.”
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said Obama had “capitulated to Big Food” by signing a bill that “does not mandate recalls, penalties or fines for noncompliance, and many loopholes in the bill will likely leave plenty of GMO ingredients exempt from any labeling requirements.
Under the law, USDA has two years to implement the law. It will require formal comment periods and promises to be highly complex because Congress left a lot of decisions about the labeling program up to USDA.
The law requires “mandatory disclosure” of genetically modified ingredients, but leaves it up to the companies to decide whether to use on-package labels, a symbol that USDA has yet to develop, or a link to a smartphone app or website that will provide further information.
Another uncertainty is whether USDA will require labeling if the ingredients do not have any traces of genetic modification but came from the planting of genetically modified seed, as would be the case with beet sugar.
The law says that products containing such ingredients would not need to be labeled, but the USDA General Counsel’s office has said the final decision would be up to the Agriculture secretary when the law is implemented.
The Hagstrom Report covers Congressional hearings, markups and press conferences in Washington D.C., as well as national nutrition news and farm meetings throughout the United States. Subscribers to The Hagstrom Report receive a digital newsletter daily while Congress is in session and at other times as events require and news happens.