With the rise in state legislative efforts to require labeling for foods produced using genetic engineering or “GMOs,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is poised to enter the labeling debate by working with federal legislators to propose a federal standard. A draft of the proposed legislation shows three objectives: (1) to establish a process for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct safety reviews plant varieties proposed to be consumed as genetically engineered food; (2) to create a legal framework governing the use of labels disclosing the presence or absence of GMOs; and (3) to require the FDA to define the term “natural” for purposes of labeling. A federal GMO regulation would provide a unified approach to GMO labeling and preempt state and local labeling requirements.

The FDA safety review element would obligate GMO developers to notify the FDA at least 120 days before introducing the food into the marketplace. Currently, such a process is voluntary. The notification would contain the basis for the developer’s determination that the food is as safe as comparable non-GMO food. After receiving the notification, the FDA would have 30 days to issue a response determining whether the notification is complete or additional information is required. Then, the FDA would have 90 days to review the application to determine whether the FDA objects to the determination that the food is as safe as comparable non-GMO food. If the FDA does not object, then the developer may market the food.

GMA’s proposal would also institute a voluntary GMO labeling initiative guided by a federal legal framework. Under this approach, the FDA would instruct food manufacturers on the requirements for claiming that a food does or does not contain GMO ingredients. If a food contains a GMO, a manufacturer may voluntarily represent that fact on a label. In such instances, a manufacturer could also provide information regarding the manner in which the food has been modified to express traits or characteristics that differ from comparable food. A manufacturer would also be allowed to claim that a food is non-GMO. To do so would require the manufacturer to establish a “traceability program” that ensures bioengineered food is not commingled with non-bioengineered food at any stage of production. One exception to this requirement is that the use of dairy products from animals fed GMOs or treated with a drug or biological product developed through biotechnology would not disqualify a manufacturer from representing that a food was non-bioengineered. The proposed federal guidance would also prevent manufacturers from misleading consumers by prohibiting claims that a food is more or less safe solely based on the use or absence of GMOs.

In addition to regulating GMO labels, the proposed legislation would settle the debate over use of the term “natural” on foods containing GMOs. Under the proposal, FDA would be obligated to define “natural” for use on food packaging. The same definition would apply to foods labeled “100% natural,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” “contains no artificial ingredients,” “nothing artificial,” and similar terms.

If GMA’s federal standard is adopted, food manufacturers would not need to worry about state-level labeling laws as they would be expressly preempted.  While Connecticut and Maine are the only states that have passed a labeling law, a number of states may consider labeling initiatives later this year, including Oregon, Colorado, Vermont and Arizona. Additionally, federal labeling bills have been proposed in both the House and Senate. Given the national attention this topic receives, it will be important to track the progress of all initiatives.