Details to come on G.M.O. labeling digital links

by Jeff Gelski
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When consumers visit web sites directed to them by digital links on food and beverage products, companies will not be able to sell information about who visited the web site.

SAVANNAH, GA. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is still working on the details about what it will allow in digital links for bioengineered/G.M.O. labeling, but companies for certain will need to stay away from promotional materials.

“You can’t have buy-one, get-one-free coupons,” said Craig Morris, Ph.D., deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program.

When consumers visit web sites directed to them by digital links on food and beverage products, companies will not be able to sell information about who visited the web site, he said in an Oct. 25 presentation at the AACC International annual meeting in Savannah. If a consumer accesses the company’s G.M.O. information digitally, the consumer will not receive an e-mail two days later asking about the consumer’s interest in the company’s products, he said.

President Barack Obama on July 29 signed a bill into law that directs the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard. The U.S.D.A. should publish a notice of proposed rule-making by the end of November, Dr. Morris said. The publishing of the finalized regulation is targeted for July 2018.

The digital links may allow companies to give information on bioengineered ingredients/G.M.O.s to consumers, perhaps alleviating their fear of the technology, said Denzel E. McGuire, executive vice-president of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, at the AACC International meeting. This practice holds true for SmartLabel, a technology from the Washington-based G.M.A.

“This is the platform for what SmartLabel permits,” Ms. McGuire said. “It empowers companies to provide context on G.M.O.”

She said that through the use of SmartLabel, the Hershey Co., Hershey, Pa., provides the following statement: “This product includes ingredients from G.E. crops commonly known as G.M.O.s. In the U.S. some agriculture crops such as corn and soybeans are predominantly from G.M.O. varieties. Ingredients from these crops are used in many food products.”

She said Unilever, through SmartLabel, informs consumers that G.M.O. crops have been around for 20 years and that the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization all say G.M.O.s are safe.

The new law requires food manufacturers to disclose the presence of bioengineered ingredients in one of three ways: text on the package, a symbol on the package or a link to a web site (a quick-response code or similar technology).

Dr. Morris said the U.S.D.A. is creating a symbol that companies may use on packaging to denote the presence of bioengineered/G.M.O. ingredients.

“That symbol in no way, shape or form should disparage the (G.M.O.) technology,” he said.

He said the U.S.D.A. already has three potential symbols, but the agency will wait until the symbols are trademarked to share them with the public.

Since the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Marketing Service will oversee G.M.O. labeling, it is a marketing law and not a food safety law or a health law, Dr. Morris said. Enforcement may be similar to enforcement for country-of-origin labeling, he said. The U.S.D.A. will train workers to peruse grocery aisles and make certain G.M.O. labels are in compliance.

“Never, though, will failure to disclose bioengineered content require a product recall,” Dr. Morris said. “Congress is very clear, because this is a marketing issue, it should not ever trigger a recall mechanism.”

He pointed out the rule-making process will take place during the transition between presidential administrations. The notice of proposed rule-making should come out in about a month, and a proposed rule may follow in the fall of 2017. The finalized regulations would come out in July 2018.

“There’s going to be ample opportunity for public input between now and then,” Dr. Morris said.

The U.S.D.A. may hold between four and six public meetings and two virtual public meetings/webinars, he said. 
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