USDA Working to Finalize Definition of “Bioengineered” in the Food Industry

USDA Working to Finalize Definition of “Bioengineered” in the Food Industry

The USDA is reviewing comments from major food companies in regards to defining the term "bioengineered" in the food industry.

The USDA has been butting heads with major players in the food industry such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the newly formed Sustainable Food Policy Alliance over the definition of “bioengineered” in terms of food manufacturing. The ongoing debate led to the formation of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) which hopes to finalize labeling regulations for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.

However, food companies are arguing against the upcoming mandatory GMO labeling scheme because they believe that many consumers would not purchase products that openly disclose GMO information. In fact, a recent GfK Global study found that consumers are more interested in products that are GMO-free than those that are low-in-fat.

Nevertheless, in May the USDA published a proposed rule under the NBFDS to define the term “bioengineered” as referring to a food product “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.” The rule also stated that GMO foods can be labeled with the terms “bioengineering” or “bioengineered food.”

The proposed rule also set two possible definitions for bioengineered food. The first definition would exclude refined food ingredients such as sweeteners and oils, that come from bioengineered crops. This is because such refined products are chemically identical to their counterparts that are made from non-bioengineered crops. The second definition takes all food products made from bioengineering into consideration. Industry members and the public were allowed to comment on their preferences until early July.

Comments from industry stakeholders varied as there were some areas of agreement along with disagreements on certain opinions. The GMA, who once argued against GMO labeling, this time pushed for full transparency and adding refined ingredients into the definition of “bioengineered.”

“Consumers expect to know if a product contains an ingredient that was sourced from a bioengineered crop, so it is essential that disclosure of this information be required under a final rule for the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard,” said Dr. Leon Bruner, chief science officer for the GMA.

The GMA held the same stance in their original comments during the public comments period. In their comments, the organization claimed that if consumers do not get complete transparency on where food ingredients come from, the food industry will be the one to suffer the repercussions the most. The organization also argues that many food companies use refined ingredients and if the USDA excludes such ingredients from the definition of “bioengineering,” it will have a significant impact on the number of products affected by the new rule.

The association claims that about 90 percent of US corn, soybean and sugar beet crops are a result of bioengineering. This means that a significant amount of food products have the potential of falling under the upcoming GMO labeling rule if refined ingredients are included in the definition of bioengineered. According to the organization, about 78 percent fewer products in the food industry will be labeled as “bioengineered” if refined ingredients are excluded from the definition of GMOs.

“Our ability to provide consumers with the information they seek — and in a way that they understand — will build trust in brands, industry and government institutions,” the GMA said in its comments. “The ease with which the final regulations enable full disclosure of information to consumers will either support or diminish our ability to engage in a dialogue with consumers about technologies that improve lives, society and the environment.”

The American Beverage Association (ABA) was not satisfied with the proposed rule and argued for a simple yet coherent definition of the term that both industry professionals and consumers can understand easily. The ABA told the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMA) to establish a definition for the term “bioengineering” that allows all companies and consumers to easily identify what ingredients are bioengineered and what are not.

“In particular, we urge AMS to draft a final rule with a breadth appropriate to capture a wide array of foods within the bioengineered food disclosure requirement. If ultimately, implementation of the NBFDS results in disclosure for only a minimal subset of foods, because the regulation is overly complicated or exempts from disclosure a majority of foods consumers would consider to be bioengineered, consumers will undoubtedly be confused. Rather than helping to build trust in bioengineered foods, such a rule will, instead, foster unease among consumers, who will lose confidence in this regulatory effort,” said the ABA.

On the other hand, producer organizations such as the US Beet Sugar Industry were opposed to including refined ingredients under the definition of “bioengineered.” This is primarily because such labeling might dissuade consumers from purchasing products.

“Creating any presumption, even unintentionally, that beet sugar produced from transgenic sugar beets is different and less desirable than its conventional counterparts or cane sugar is not supported by science, is contrary to the intent of the NBFDS, imposes a costly and discriminatory burden on the industry and has harmful economic impacts throughout the supply chain,” the group said. “It also creates consumer confusion and increases consumer prices for identical products.”

In addition, the American Soybean Association (ASA) expressed their concerns for potentially implying that foods made from bioengineered crops contain GMO material. Since bioengineered crops produce products that are chemically identical to their natural counterparts, they should not be considered as GMO ingredients.

“Our overriding concern, however, is that some of the options being considered, if adopted, could harm U.S. farmers and stifle innovation in agriculture by presuming or implying that refined ingredients like sugars and oils, derived from a bioengineered crop, contain modified genetic material when sound science shows they do not,” the ASA said.