A recently enacted federal law directs the secretary of agriculture to establish national standards for labeling bioengineered foods, sometimes described as genetically engineered foods or foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). S.764 by Wicker (R-MS) preempts state requirements for labeling bioengineered foods or seeds, including a labeling law recently enacted by the Vermont General Assembly. Texas law does not mandate labeling of foods with GMOs, although a bill to establish such a requirement was introduced in the 2015 legislative session.
According to the federal Food and Drug Administration, evidence has shown that foods from genetically engineered plants are as safe to eat as their non-genetically engineered counterparts, but proposals requiring labeling of such foods have emerged in response to consumers who say they have a right to know how their food is made and who may wish to avoid eating genetically engineered foods for various reasons. Advocates of a federal solution have sought a consistent, national approach to labeling, rather than differing requirements across states.
Under the new federal law, the secretary of agriculture within two years must set labeling standards that require manufacturers to disclose on packages the use of bioengineered ingredients through text, a symbol, or an electronic or digital link, such as a Quick Response (QR) code. Small food manufacturers will have other disclosure options that include providing a phone number consumers can call to access more information. The secretary also must within one year study potential technological challenges affecting customers’ ability to access disclosures about bioengineered foods through electronic or digital methods.
The new law defines bioengineered foods as foods containing genetic material that has been modified through “in vitro recombinant DNA techniques” and for which the modification could not be found in nature or obtained through conventional breeding. In vitro recombinant DNA techniques involve combining DNA from different sources to achieve certain benefits, such as insect resistance for plants. Under the new law, food derived from an animal that consumed feed containing a bioengineered substance cannot be considered a bioengineered food solely for that reason. The secretary of agriculture must determine how much of a bioengineered substance may be in a food for it to be considered bioengineered.
A bill filed but not enacted in Texas by the 84th Legislature in 2015 would have required that foods offered for sale by a retailer be labeled as produced entirely or partially from genetic engineering, if applicable, and would have established a civil penalty for noncompliant manufacturers or retailers. The bill, HB 3499 by Alvarado, was referred to the House Committee on Public Health but did not receive a public hearing.
by Mary Beth Schaefer