The USDA Is Right: Bioengineered Foods Don’t Need Labels

Should a federal agency issue a regulation that will impose up to $3.5 billion in costs next year, and billions more in the coming decade – while delivering essentially no benefits?

That sounds crazy. But a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed to do exactly that.

OK, not exactly – but pretty close. The proposal is the outgrowth of the longstanding national battle over whether to require labels for bioengineered (or genetically modified) foods. 1 The USDA’s analysis of costs and benefits deserves careful attention, even if it raises serious questions about its own proposal.

In the summer of 2016, Congress required the USDA to impose such labels. Last month, the department responded by inviting public comments on the rule, called the Proposed National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.

The department was candid about the high costs of its proposal. In the first year, companies — mostly food manufacturers — would have to spend somewhere between $600 million and $3.5 billion in compliance costs. (The range reflects uncertainty about some assumptions behind the estimates.) After an initial period of learning and adjustment, the annual costs would range from $132 million to $330 million. In the history of federal regulation, that may not qualify as monstrously expensive, but it’s a lot.

What do the American people get in return?

The department notes that there is no evidence that bioengineered food causes health risks. For that reason, its disclosure standard “is not intended to convey safety or health information.” It added that the rule “is not expected to have any benefits to human health or the environment.”

To drive the point home, it found that even if the new labels change the ratio of bioengineered to non-bioengineered food purchases, “there would be no impacts on human health or the environment.” That’s not a partisan conclusion. It is supported by the National Academy of Sciences, and in general it reflects the views of experts in both Republican and Democratic administrations. (To be sure, some experts do not rule out possible environmental risks.)

Photo: Noah Berger/Bloomberg