(Beyond Pesticides, September 7, 2017) Last month, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump Administration for its failure to comply with the 2016 federal law on the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food, National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are charged with implementing the new labeling rules, and part of that process is a study on “electronic and digital disclosures” (QR codes) for GE foods, as opposed to on-package text. That study was required to be finished by July 2017, with an opportunity for public commetn, but USDA never met it legal obligation.
The federal lawsuit is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against USDA regarding that agency’s failure to comply with mandatory deadlines established by the 2016 Federal Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standards Act (the “GE Labeling Act”). The suit contends that the “American public deserves full disclosure, the right to transparency and free choice in the marketplace.”
Consumers have advocated for mandatory labeling of GE foods for nearly two decades. Polls show that over 90% of U.S. residents support requiring the labeling of GE foods, as 64 countries already do, including many U.S. trade partners such as the European Union and Japan. Consumers have become more and more aware that, while few whole foods are genetically engineered, the majority of processed foods are produced with GE ingredients. The public recognizes that having thousands of processed food products containing GE ingredients, yet going unlabeled is deceptive, misleading, or at best confusing.
The federal GE food law requires USDA to establish federal standards for labeling by July 2018, and conduct a study to inform its rulemaking, which is why it was required to be completed a year earlier. One of the most controversial aspects of the law is how it will require companies to label GE foods, and whether companies will be able to forgo clear, on-package labeling through the use of QR codes and other digital disclosures. The new federal law allows USDA to consider several options: on-package text, a GE symbol on packages, or “electronic or digital disclosures,” which would require shoppers to use a smart phone to scan packages to access a website or call a 1-800 number for every single product to find out if it was produced with genetic engineering. The study is crucial because it will analyze if this type of digital labeling will make the information accessible or not, based on several factors. If USDA concludes, based on the study, that these disclosures will not provide consumers sufficient access, then USDA must require consumers be given alternative options.
“Americans deserve nothing less than clear on-package labeling, the way food has always been labeled,” said George Kimbrell, Legal Director for CFS. “Allowing companies to hide genetically engineered ingredients behind a website or QR code is discriminatory and unworkable.”
In the U.S., there has never been a food labeling requirement for QR” codes instead of on-package labeling. Electronic labeling will not provide disclosure to a large portion of Americans, disproportionately affecting minority, low-income, and elderly people:
- Studies show that half of low-income people do not own smartphones.
- Almost half of rural people do not own smart phones.
- Minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of low-income and rural Americans.
- Two-thirds of the elderly do not own smart phones.
- Overall, only 64% of Americans own a smart phone.
- Few people have ever used a QR code: only 16% have ever scanned a QR code and only 3% of those people do it regularly.
A shopper would have to scan all of the many items s/he is shopping for on any given shopping trip (which for a family of 4 could easily amount to more than 50 items). This would be an undue burden on the consumer and greatly impede access to information that is currently required for all other forms of food labeling. On-package labeling is simple, quick, and effective. QR codes, websites, and 1-800 numbers are not.
Connecticut and Maine both passed GE food labeling laws in 2013, albeit with their effective dates contingent on the passage of similar standards in other states. In 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass a mandatory GE labeling law, which would go into effect in 2016. Numerous major food producers began to label their food for GE content in order to anticipate compliance with Vermont’s law. In response, Congress finally passed a GE labeling law in July 2016, preempting state laws and setting a federal standard in its place.
For more information on GE labeling and the dangers associated with GE agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides program page. And for the details on how certified organic is the right choice for your family and the environment, see our webpage on
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.