The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent decision to certify a company’s process to develop corn free of genetically modified organisms is being wrongly interpreted in that the agency has broad authority to establish standards for GMO or non-GMO labeling of food. The USDA’s decision actually spotlights the limitations currently facing the agency, and the need for congressional action on this issue.
Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., have introduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which would set the much-needed national uniform standard for labeling GMO food.
Canadian company SunOpta began discussions 18 months, ago asking the USDA to certify SunOpta’s own process for developing GMO-free bulk corn. This was done under the USDA’s Process Verified Program, which has been used for decades to help companies certify their own standards for products such as antibiotic-free meat and grass-fed beef.
Under this process verification program, companies pay USDA to audit and certify their compliance with standards set by the company. In this case, SunOpta’s standard is corn that is less than 1 percent GMO. The USDA’s decision affirmed the company’s process meets that standard.
It’s important to understand that the USDA’s action does not establish a standard or a process for GMO labeling of food. While the USDA’s decision allows SunOpta to label its agricultural product as “USDA PVP Certified,” it has no effect on the company’s decision to label their product as “GMO-free.” The USDA currently has no authority over labeling food for the presence or absence of GMOs, which is why this certification for SunOpta has created some confusion.
Other companies soon may ask the USDA to certify their own processes and standards for GMO-free food, and these processes and standards will likely be different than SunOpta’s. Companies may market their agricultural products as “GMO-free.” However, without a single standard for what a GMO-free agricultural product is, the term becomes virtually meaningless. Consumers have no idea what they are purchasing. This is what’s at stake right now in the debate over state food labeling law.
While every major scientific and health organization that has studied GMOs has determined they are safe as any other food, activists continue to push for state laws that would mandate the labeling of GMO foods. Vermont is scheduled to begin enforcing such a law in July 2016.
The absence of any federal law setting a uniform national standard for GMO labeling is making it possible for states to establish labeling laws with state-specific loopholes that can, as Vermont’s law does, exempt 60 percent of food.
A patchwork of these state labeling laws will create a maze of new standards and regulations for farmers and producers. Crops, assembly lines and transportation routes will have to be segregated between foods with genetically modified ingredients and those without those ingredients.
In addition, different labeling standards and exemptions in different states will confuse consumers. For example, Vermont’s law would exempt meat, so a can of vegetable soup might be labeled as “genetically modified” while the same brand of vegetable beef soup would be exempt.
Ultimately, this complex and confusing process will add new costs. According to a study done by a Cornell University professor, a family of four could see their grocery costs increase by an average of $500 per year under these state GMO-labeling laws.
These concerns are what drove the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to pass a resolution earlier this year supporting a “national uniform labeling policy for foods derived from genetic engineering.
The Pompeo-Butterfield bill also would establish a national certification program run by the USDA for food to be labeled as non-GMO. This program would be similar to the successful National Organics Program run by the USDA. Under the organics program, Congress gave the agency authority to develop standards, processes and verification for food to be labeled USDA Certified Organic. Importantly, the process of developing the program and its definitions took place publicly, with people having the ability to make comments and impact the final rule.
Today, no matter where they shop in the country, a consumer can buy an organic product armed with confidence and knowledge. The same needs to happen with GMOs.
The misinterpretations and mistakes regarding the USDA’s recent actions with SunOpta underscore the widespread confusion that still surrounds GMO labeling issues. Congress needs to act quickly to bring clarity to this issue, and ensure farmers and consumers don’t pay the price for the poor decisions being made in some states.
Mike Strain has served as commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry since 2008.