Federal GMO Labeling Law:  What Happens Next?

Federal GMO Labeling Law: What Happens Next?

August 17, 2016

By RDBA Executive Director Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

On July 29, 2016, President Barack Obama signed into federal law legislation that requires disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients on food packages. The information can be presented to consumers using a QR code, through text or a symbol on the package, or via a link to a website.  Here’s everything you need to know about how the law will get enacted.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will develop the actual regulation. The law indicates USDA has two years to write the rules, but the implementation date will likely be beyond those two years as companies must be given time to implement the rules once finalized. From a process standpoint, USDA will write the proposed rules and then allow for public comment. They will review all the comments received prior to finalizing the rule.  If they chose, USDA can actually start by asking for comment on specific topics, a process called Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. This would precede development and publication of the proposed regulation.

Another timing factor to consider is that FDA regulates the vast majority of package labels. Through a process called harmonization, FDA will have to review, agree to, and adopt the USDA’s regulations. This is not necessarily required to happen within the two-year timeframe.

State GMO Laws 

Federal regulation pre-empts state laws in this situation, so the Vermont bill is now void and no other states will introduce state laws related to labeling of foods derived through biotechnology.

Package Claims

It is likely that as a part of the regulation, claims such as “no GMO” will be defined. This could potentially impact the Non-GMO Project and their criteria for making this claim. It’s important to note that current policies out of the regulatory agencies don’t allow for the use of the acronym GMO on the label, and this stance will likely get incorporated into the final regulations.

Rulemaking Challenges

Biotechnology is accomplished through gene manipulation, changes which occur within the protein structure of the seed.  In light of this, canola and soybean oils, even if the plants are grown from biotech seeds, are free of genetically engineered material because they don’t contain protein as sold to the consumer. Cattle may be fed grain that is grown from genetically engineered seeds, but does this mean the beef or milk must be labeled as genetically modified? Rennet, which is used in the cheese making process, is often derived through biotech.  Does this mean cheese will be labeled as biotech? These are complicated issues, which will all need to be addressed as a part of the rulemaking process.

In educating your shoppers and retail colleagues as well as in any work you do with your company’s private label brands, it’s essential to understand the timing and implications of these regulations. RDBA will continue to keep you apprised of updates on this regulation as they are available.