On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed controversial Bill 764 creating a federal labelling standard in the United States for food made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), after both the Senate and Congress approved legislation requiring labeling on all foods to indicate whether or not the food contains GMO ingredients. The federal standard will override individual state laws, such as the one passed in Vermont which is considered to be more strict and onerous.
The new federal standard has been criticized by groups that are both pro and anti GMO labelling. On one hand the federal standard ensures that consumers across the United States will have access to the same information, and food companies will not have to deal with a patchwork of different laws on GMO labelling. On the other hand, groups advocating for GMO labelling have criticized the federal standard because it may permit companies to use a QR code, website URL or 1-800 number to provide information on GMO ingredients, rather than having a statement directly on the label. Others, such as some farm and industry groups lobbied against the standard because they believe it may unfairly stigmatize GMO crops, suggesting to consumers that they are inferior or unsafe.
There are also outstanding questions surrounding what ingredients will be considered GMO and subject to the labelling requirement. Among other things, the law does not clearly address whether a food ingredient will be captured when the genetic material from the bioengineered ingredient is removed during processing of that ingredient (e.g. beet sugar and soybean oil). The US Department of Agriculture has two years to draft implementing regulations for the new legislation.
In Canada, there continues to be no mandatory requirement to label foods that contain GMOs, though certain groups and associations continue to advocate for such legislation. However, there is a voluntary GMO labelling standard that food companies should take into consideration: Voluntary labelling and advertising of foods that are and are not products of genetic engineering (CAN/CGSB-32.315-2004 Reaffirmed 2016).
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency strongly encourages food companies to follow this voluntary standard when making any type of GMO claim. One key element of the standard is use of the term genetically engineered (GE) instead of GMO. This is intended to include only materials derived through “techniques by which the genetic material of an organism is changed in a way that does not occur naturally by multiplication and/or natural recombination.” The standard also identifies criteria for making various types of GE claims, to mitigate the risk of such claims being considered false or misleading to consumers, contrary to section 5 of the Food and Drugs Act.