More bakers than ever are opting for third-party verification of the GMO status of foods.

Wait. Before you order that replacement packaging bearing the updated Nutrition Facts Panel due out July 26, 2018, there’s one more change standing in the wings. Mandatory declaration of a food’s genetically modified organism (GMO) content could get underway as soon as mid-2019. Or maybe not.

Congress fast-tracked passage of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law (NBFD) to turn back the rising tide of state laws calling for labeling of GMOs in foods. While NBFD got the job done in time, it may wait longer for implementation.

Although most food manufacturers accept such labeling as necessary, they are not happy about swallowing the expense of yet another packaging change. Also, anti-GMO and advocacy groups claim the law does not make labels transparent enough to meet the consumers’ right to know what is in their foods. And it sets up a potential conflict between the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), tasked with writing the rules, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Health and Human Services Department, charged with regulating food labels.

“A constructive solution to a complex issue” is how Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, described the new law.

Around the world, 64 countries require labeling to alert the consumer to the presence of GMOs in foods. Until passage of the 2016 law, labeling of GMO content in the US was strictly voluntary. In November 2015, FDA released final guidance on such voluntary labeling, updating draft guidance published 14 years earlier.

What NBFD says

Basically, any food sold in the US that contains genetically modified (GM) content — whether an ingredient or the whole food itself — must say so on its packaging, according to NFBD.

During hearings about the Stabenow-Roberts bill that became NBFD, USDA defined the purpose of the legislation. The law provided the department with authority to: 1) mandate labeling of food including all commercially grown GMO corn, soybeans, sugar and canola crops; 2) require labeling of food products that contain GM material resulting from gene-editing techniques; and 3) mandate labeling of food, including products that may contain highly refined oils, sugars or high-fructose corn syrup that has been produced or developed from genetic modification techniques. Still, some food ingredients were exempted, such as products of animals fed GMO feed.

Food processors are given the option to make their declaration by printing a quick response (QR) code on the label that, when scanned by a smartphone, will reveal the GMO content by linking the user to a website. Although food companies have long used QR technology as a marketing tool to gather information from consumers, such practice is not allowed with GMO labeling. Small processors are permitted to print phone numbers instead.

Some consumer advocacy groups are unhappy about this provision. The NPD Group reported that consumers, who already rely on packaging as a guide in determining what is in a food product, prefer on-package labeling over using a QR code.

Consumers and food producers favor the terms GMO or GM, but the law uses “bioengineering” and “bioengineered” instead. The law defines those terms as referring to a food “that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

Congress wrote specific requirements into the law. Among other things, USDA must set the threshold amounts of GM material present that would trigger labeling. It also specified an electronic or digital link be offered to disclose such content. Small manufacturers have less restrictive options, and foodservice operators and very small manufacturers are exempted.

The law also stated that a bioengineered food that has successfully completed pre-market federal regulatory review cannot be described as safer than (or not as safe as) a non-bioengineered counterpart of the food solely because it is bioengineered or developed through use of bioengineering.

One additional point: The GMO labeling law spells out no penalties for non-compliance.

Read on to learn how the FDA is enacting this law.