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GMO Labeling

The mandatory GMO labeling bill introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and Ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow passed the Senate and the House of Representatives, and was signed by President Obama on July 29, 2016. Read OTA’s messages to our membership.

On June 28, 2017 AMS published an inquiry listing 30 questions seeking public comment to inform a proposed rule and received more than 112,000 comments. On May 4, 2018 AMS published a proposed rule entitled the "National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (“NBFDS)” and requested stakeholder feedback. Over 14,000 comments were received. Read OTA's comments to USDA.

The Organic Trade Association worked with its GMO Labeling Advocacy Task Force and drafted comments specific to the provisions in the law that safeguard organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. View OTA's Analysis and Top Messaging Priorities. Both the analysis and our comments incorporate messages the Organic Trade Association comments submitted to USDA in July 2017 in response to the 30 questions the agency asked to help inform this proposed rule. OTA thanks its GMO Labeling Advocacy Task Force for their dedicated time and efforts that informed OTA's comments to safeguard organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. We also extend our appreciation to the task force co-chair, Colin O; Neil, Legislative Director of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), for his representation of EWG and Just Label It (JLI) and work to integrate our efforts.

OTA’s Top Messages
Consistent with Law (Pub. L. 114-216), OTA requested final rule that will put into action the following key organic provisions:

  • No USDA-NOP certified products will require disclosure as ‘bioengineered’;
  • USDA shall consider organic certification sufficient to make a claim regarding the absence of bioengineering in the food, such as “not genetically engineered,” “non-GMO,” or another similar claim;
  • The final rule should clearly state that products exempt from mandatory disclosure as "bioengineered" foods, such as milk from cows fed genetically modified feed, may not by default automatically qualify for an "absence” claim solely because the food is not required to bear a disclosure;
  • The definition of the term ‘bioengineering’ shall not affect the definition of “excluded methods” or any other definition under USDA’s National Organic Program; and
  • The requirements set under the bioengineered food disclosure will not require that any modifications be made to the USDA organic regulations.

We also urged USDA to:

  • Use its authority and broadly interpret the definition of “bioengineering” to include highly refined products such as oils or sugars derived from bioengineered crops;
  • Recognize and allow common terms and shorthand that industry and consumers understand, such as “genetic engineering,” “genetically modified,” “not GE,” and “non-GMO;”
  • Adopt symbol disclosure options that 1) utilize acronyms that consumers are familiar with such as “GE” or “GMO,” and 2) are consistent with the non-bias (neutral) stylistic tone of other AMS logos;
  • Adopt a threshold for inadvertent or technically unavoidable bioengineered DNA that is consistent with the level adopted by other major trading partners (no more than 0.9% of the specific ingredient).


For years, the Organic Trade Association has supported efforts to bring federal mandatory GMO labeling to the United States. President Obama has signed a federal labeling bill, introduced by Senators Roberts and Stabenow, that not only requires disclosure of GMO ingredients, but also includes important provisions that are excellent for organic farmers and food makers – and for the millions of consumers who choose organic every day -- because they recognize, unequivocally, that USDA Certified Organic products qualify for non-GMO claims in the market place. Those provisions safeguard USDA certified organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. Without the citizen-led efforts in Vermont and other states, this compromise bill would never have come to fruition. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) applauds Senator Stabenow for championing the USDA Organic seal, and for protecting organic as the original assurance of non-GMO ingredients and more, while crafting a mandatory federal solution to the challenging and controversial debate on GMO labeling and consumer transparency.

Joining 64 countries across the world, consumer products in the United States, with certain defined exceptions, will be required to label if they contain GMOs.  Important clarifying additions include that products that are not required to label (such as products of animals fed GMO feed) do not automatically qualify for non-GMO claims in the marketplace. This bill reinforces Organic as the original non-GMO market claim and assures consumers that the USDA organic seal is the gold standard for consumers looking to avoid GMO’s, toxic pesticides, and so much more.

On the surface, we understand how some may be fundamentally dissatisfied with supporting this compromise solution because it includes an option to reveal the presence of GMOs through technology that would require a smartphone and internet access. But it also covers more products than the Vermont Law if it goes into effect. When it comes to protecting organic agriculture and trade, we have to take the long view. If you consider what the opponents of GMO labeling proposed, and what the voluntary and state by state options would have offered, it’s hard not to see how this mandatory federal legislation is a constructive solution to a complex issue. The recognition in law that certified organic is non-GMO and can always make that claim is an enormous win.

While not perfect, this bill covers thousands more products than Vermont’s GMO labeling law and other state initiatives. It will not allow products that are exempt from informing consumers about their GMO content to automatically slap on a non-GMO claim. And it makes a huge advance in recognizing and safeguarding USDA certified organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. READ MORE >>

Transparency has always been a foundational principle for organic and this national, mandatory bill takes an important step forward in providing more information for all consumers. As this GMO labeling bill is enacted and implemented, OTA hopes that all companies, faced with the choice of how to disclose GMO ingredients, will choose to print a simple and clear statement of GMO content on the product label as the most effective and transparent way to communicate with consumers. OTA stresses that the simplest and surest way today to be guaranteed that the products they buy are non-GMO is to look for USDA Organic. 

USDA clarifies interpretation of scope and applicability of Stabenow-Roberts GMO labeling bill


After the Stabenow-Roberts GMO labeling bill was introduced in June 2016, many were rightly concerned by the FDA’s comments that they would read the bill narrowly to not cover highly processed products or emerging technologies such as gene editing. The Office of General Counsel at the USDA – the agency that would implement this bill if it were to become law – has since clarified its interpretation of the scope and applicability of the proposed legislation. USDA clarified that the proposed legislation:

  • provides authority to mandate labeling of food including all commercially grown GMO corn, soybeans, sugar, and canola crops used in food today;
  • provides authority to require labeling of food products that contain genetically modified material resulting from gene editing techniques;
  • provides authority to mandate labeling of food, including products that may contain highly refined oils, sugars, or high fructose corn syrup that have been produced or developed from genetic modification techniques.

The deadline for receiving comments on USDA's proposed GMO Food Disclosure Rule was July 3, 2018. The congressionally mandated timeline for USDA to release the FINAL Rule is July 29, 2018. The Organic Trade Association will keep its members updated on the next steps to ensure that organic remains the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. Read OTA's final comments. 

To read view the full text of the law, the proposed rule and corresponding USDA policy, visit USDA’s GMO Disclosure & Labeling web page.

Organic Trade Assocation Policy Position

OTA supports mandatory labeling of all agricultural GMOs and their products. OTA supports the consumer’s right to know, and to choose foods, fiber and personal care products based on environmental, personal health, religious, dietary or other preferences. Labeling of GMO seed, products grown from GMO seed or stock, or made with ingredients and byproducts of GMO crops is necessary for farmer, supply chain and consumer choice.

OTA Action

OTA’s on-going work includes weighing in through open comment processes on mandatory and voluntary GMO labeling initiatives and staying proactive on the legislative front, with regard to any related bills or regulation. OTA opposed the Pompeo Act, which passed the House of Representatives in July 2015. That legislation, if enacted, would have created a voluntary standard for labeling products as non-GMO – a standard that is unnecessary, does not solve the problem, and would conflict with the existing organic standard. OTA continues opposes any legislation that does not protect organic certification as the gold standard for a non-GMO claim in the marketplace. OTA also opposes any voluntary labeling solutions. OTA applauds Senator Stabenow for championing the USDA Organic seal, and for protecting organic as the original assurance of non-GMO ingredients and more, while crafting a mandatory federal solution to the challenging and controversial debate on GMO labeling and consumer transparency.

OTA Action

In November 2015, FDA released final guidance on voluntary labeling of products containing GMOs – after initially publishing that guidance in draft form in 2001. The draft guidance, released in January 2001, explains that consumers do not understand the acronyms “GMO” and “GM,” and prefer label statements referring to bioengineering. The public comment period lasted until March 2001, although the docket has remained open since then. OTA’s Organic = Non-GMO PLUS Task Force assisted OTA is developing comments to FDA on the common terminology used on existing organic products prior to FDA’s release of final guidance.

OTA's Position on FDA's Final Guidance

The Organic Trade Association is perplexed that FDA finalized this guidance without reopening the process for a new round of public comment. Given that over 14 years have passed since the draft guidance was published and significant changes have occurred with respect to public perception of organic foods and GMOs in general, the public deserves to have another chance to comment on this very critical issue.

OTA objects to FDA’s decision to not endorse the term “Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)” as an acceptable term to describe the use of modern biotechnology. GMO is a commonly used term that USDA uses, consumers understand, and an industry has developed around. All communications from NOP since 2000 refer to “GMOs.” Since 1997, the organic industry has grown from $3 billion to almost $37 billion with the acceptance of “GMO” as the common use terminology. OTA has argued that any change would be extremely disruptive to years of organic product and market development. Furthermore, a change from this historical use could cause consumers to question whether the organic standards vis a vis GMO have changed. While FDA states it will not pursue action against the GMO acronym in the marketplace, surely FDA could have recognized existing federal regulation and overwhelming consumer familiarity with the term.

As a self-evident confirmation, OTA acknowledges that FDA has reaffirmed organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) is sufficient to substantiate a claim that a food was not produced with GMOs. The FDA specifically noted that this applies to foods sold or labeled as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic.”  The OTA commends the FDA for hearing organic stakeholders and the OTA on this point, and commends the agency for recognizing that the integrity and stringency of the U.S. organic regulatory and certification system ensures consumers that organic foods are produced and handled without the use of GMOs, including adequate segregation to assure that genetically engineered foods do not become  mixed with organic foods.

Read OTA’s comments to FDA on its Draft Guidance on GMO Labeling      

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GMO Labeling