Expect Clearer View of GMO Labeling Rules Before 2017: Vilsack

Bloomberg BNA – The food industry is poised to get a better view of the Agriculture Department's approach to rules implementing a federal labeling law for foods made with genetically modified organisms.

Regulators will probably release an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in the fall that would pose “critical questions” to the public on potential details of GMO labeling rules, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told the department's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture Sept. 8.

Vilsack also said the department plans to release a request for proposal in October to conduct a study—mandated by the GMO labeling law—that examines the efficacy of disclosing GMO information electronically. Vilsack said he hopes to complete the study in the summer of 2017.

“We are very committed to getting this done in the time frame that Congress has directed,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack's remarks signal progress in the USDA rulemaking efforts. The request for proposal and the rulemaking notice could shed light on how the USDA plans to implement the labeling law (Pub. L. No. 114-216), which the president signed in late July. The law gives the USDA two years to implement a mandatory GMO labeling system.

Vilsack has said that while the USDA probably won't finish crafting rules before the end of the current administration, his department will try to accomplish as much as possible to ease the transition when the next president takes office (164 BTB, 8/24/16).

The USDA would seek public comment on the advance notice of proposed rulemaking over several months, Vilsack said, with the aim of developing a work plan to implement the labelling rules.

Electronic Disclosure Study

The labeling law gives foodmakers three options to disclose GMO information: through on-package text, a USDA-created symbol or a QR code that can be scanned by a shopper's smartphone.

Consumer advocates have criticized the electronic disclosure provision of the labeling law, calling it a barrier for consumers who don't own a smartphone or live in areas with spotty cellular reception.

Though the law requires the USDA to study whether electronic access is a viable way to distribute GMO information, it doesn't provide the funding to conduct the study, Vilsack said.

Congress must pass a measure to fund the government by Sept. 30, and Vilsack said lawmakers should use that opportunity to fund the study as well. Otherwise, the rulemaking process could be delayed, he said.

“We are in the process of trying to encourage our friends in Congress as they deal with the budget process at the end of this fiscal year, either though a continuing resolution or through a budget, to basically state unequivocally that the resources will be there for us to do the study,” he said.

Transparency Stressed

Vilsack stressed the need for transparency to the public and the U.S. international trading partners when writing the labeling rules.

“We want to do this well,” he said. “We want to reduce the risk of litigation questions that could potentially arise, as they often do in rulemaking,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack also said the USDA would work to make sure any labeling rules are compliant with World Trade Organization commitments.