USDA Releases Biotech Labeling Proposal

USDA Releases Biotech Labeling Proposal

May 9, 2018
Annette Maggi

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

Last week, USDA released the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard proposed rule. In background, two years ago Congress dictated that USDA would publish a final rule on how to label foods with a bioengineered (BE) trait by July 29, 2018.  The proposed rule’s release is a concrete step in this direction.  

Here are highlights of the proposed rule:

  • USDA is proposing bioengineered food be defined as food that contains genetic material modified through rDNA that could not happen through traditional plant breeding or in nature.  The proposed rule gives no indication of whether gene editing (think CRISPR technology) is included in the definition.  Many in the food and agriculture industries believe that gene editing will replace BE, and that the BE labeling standard could become obsolete. This makes the absence of discussion on gene editing a miss by USDA.
  • When Congress enacted the law directing USDA to develop the BE labeling standard, they clearly indicated that meat from food animals who consume feed with a BE trait was exempt from labeling.  According to USDA, 70% of they soybeans grown in the U.S. are used for animal feed. Corn, USDA indicates, is the main source of feed, accounting for more than 95% of feed gain grown and used.  Ninety percent or more of soybean and field corn are grown from BE seeds (attach link:  Under the rule, neither this field corn or soybeans nor the meat or poultry that comes from it will be required to be labeled as BE.
  • A key point of contention in BE labeling is whether highly refined foods must be labeled.  BE traits are in the protein element of food.  If a product is refined so as there is no longer a protein component (such as with oils or sugar from sugar beets), USDA is seeking comment on whether these foods should be required to be BE labeled.  
  • USDA is also seeking public comment on the use of threshold levels. Foods that contain BE material below these threshold levels would be exempt from BE labeling.  USDA seeks input on threshold levels of 5% and 0.9% by weight.  Related to this, the proposed rule indicates that ingredients used as incidental additives (have no function in the final product) not trigger a BE labeling requirement.
  • The proposed rule defines BE foods with a high adoption rate (canola, field corn, cotton, soybean, sugar beet) separate from those that are not highly adopted (apple, sweet corn, papaya, potato, summer squash).  The former would require labeling as a BE food, but the later could use “may contain” messaging.  No details are provided in the proposal on if and how produce would be BE labeled on the retail shelf.
  • In regards to method of disclosure, the proposed rule includes a variety of options including a symbol, and electronic or digital links.

The full proposed rule is available here and comments are due to USDA by July 3, 2018.