WASHINGTON — Excluding refined ingredients from federal bioengineering (BE) labeling requirements would diminish consumer confidence in the integrity of the rules, according to the American Bakers Association.

In a letter to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the A.B.A. urged the Department to include refined ingredients in the definition of bioengineered foods. The letter, from Lee Sanders, senior vice-president, government relations and public affairs for the A.B.A., was sent in response to the May 4 publication in the Federal Register of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.

“To support consumers’ desire for transparency about food products and to preserve the integrity of the federal BE disclosure standard, A.B.A. strongly believes that A.M.S. should not exclude any refined ingredients from the disclosure standard,” Ms. Sanders said. She went on to ask that the A.M.S. use the term “refined” rather than “highly refined” in the case of edible oils, sugar and similar ingredients.

She said the A.B.A. objects to a statement in the bioengineering rules asserting that highly refined ingredients do not contain BE at detectable levels.

“A.B.A. understands that the federal BE standard was created in response to Vermont’s genetically engineered food disclosure standard, which, in turn, was based on the request of consumers in Vermont for a disclosure on the label of bioengineered foods,” the A.B.A. said. “A.B.A. is aware that a consumer’s desire for the disclosure may not be based solely on whether the food contains BE content, but also on whether BE crops were used to make the ingredients.”

As a cutoff for whether labeling is required, the bakers would prefer a low threshold of inadvertent or technically unavoidable BE content, but the A.B.A. is not insistent on the point. Ms. Sanders suggested the A.M.S. adopt a threshold of 0.9% by weight of a specific ingredient. She said there should be no allowance for intentionally added BE substance in the guidelines.

Ms. Sanders said the A.B.A. recognizes other stakeholders may believe a 5% threshold of inadvertent or technically unavoidable BE substance is necessary “due to the current realities of the supply chain and agricultural practices.”

“A.B.A. would not object if A.M.S. adopted a threshold directed at non-disclosure for foods in which an ingredient contains a BE substance that is inadvertent or technically unavoidable and is no more than 5% of the specific ingredient by weight,” she said.

In contrast to its position on refined ingredients, the A.B.A. said microorganisms used in baking such as yeast and enzymes should be excluded from the definition of BE food and from disclosure.

“Yeast may be grown (i.e. fed) on BE substrates,” Ms. Sanders said. “Akin to A.M.S.’s proposed exemption of food derived from an animal that has consumed BE feed, yeast, for the same reasons, should be excluded from the BE disclosure standard.”

She went on to say that enzymes and other ingredients produced through fermentation also should be exempt from disclosure.

Other potential examples she cited were caramel flavoring and color, polydextrose, vitamin C and sugar alcohols.

“For these types of ingredients, the BE source is typically not present or readily traceable in the supply chain,” Ms. Sanders said.

Preferred symbol indicated

Based on a survey of its members, the A.B.A. selected image 2-A as the preferred disclosure symbol. Ms. Sanders said 70% of respondents selected 2-A, with 19% preferring 2-B and 11% favoring 2-C.

“A.B.A. recommends that if A.M.S. adopts option 2-A as the symbol disclosure, that A.M.S. move the image of the sun so that it appears on the opposite side of the symbol from the plant, to avoid the perception that the plant is a corn plant,” she said.

She also requested manufacturers be given the option to use the darkest and lightest inks used on the package/label for the symbol disclosure.

Other comments from Ms. Sanders included a strong recommendation that the A.M.S. subject BE requirements for imported foods.

“There is no reasonable justification for why imported foods, as a category, should be excluded from the BE labeling disclosure,” she said.

The A.B.A. voiced support for the “flexible and reasonable” approach the A.M.S. proposed for record keeping and asked that this tack be maintained in the final rule.

“A.M.S. would allow companies to determine which records to maintain sufficient to demonstrate compliance, records to be in any format (hard copy or electronic), and records to be stored at any business location,” she said.

She also cautioned that the effectiveness of the BE disclosure rule could be diminished greatly in the absence of consumer education.

“A mandatory BE disclosure that is not accompanied by vigorous and thoughtful efforts to educate consumers on what the BE disclosure standard means may result in unnecessary and unwarranted widespread consumer concern and confusion if consumers seek foods without the BE disclosure,” she said. “For these reasons, A.B.A. urges A.M.S. to implement and disseminate a widespread consumer-focused campaign to educate consumers on what the BE disclosure means.”

Compliance date looming too soon

For a proposed compliance date of Jan. 1, 2020 (a year later for small companies), the A.B.A. expressed misgivings. The A.M.S. also has proposed a two-year extension, if necessary, for manufacturers to deplete existing label stock, if needed. The January 2020 date is aligned with the Food and Drug Administration compliance date for the Nutrition Facts Label.

“While this compliance date may be reasonable at this point in time, it is unclear how long it will take A.M.S. to review comments and provide a final rule and any final guidance necessary for implementing the final rule,” Ms. Sanders said. “A.B.A. requests, therefore, that A.M.S. provide a compliance date of two years after the effective date of the final rule, along with an additional year to use up existing label stock.”