WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the rule-making phase of implementing biotech food labeling after Congress passed a bill last summer that survived a long and controversial fight.

Farm and food industry groups expect a proposed rule by the end of this year, followed by a comment period and final rule before the July 2018 deadline.

The National Biotech Disclosure Law was a response to the July 1, 2016, state biotech labeling mandate in Vermont that some say threatened to disrupt interstate commerce and increase costs for food companies and consumers.

Besides bringing certainty to the industry, the law focuses on three areas, according to Randy Russell, president of The Russell Group in Washington, D.C., which represents the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food.

"It stops states from putting in similar types of laws like Vermont," he says. "It has a very strong national uniform standard for bioengineered food. And then lastly, it gives food companies options - either using a QR code, electronic disclosure or on-pack labeling."

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Roger Lowe, executive vice president of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says the members of his group are already using QR codes. GMA developed a Smart Label program that allows food companies to provide biotech and other nutritional information beyond an on-package label. The Smart Labels already are on 5,000 products, and that number will jump to 34,000 by year end, he says.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association supports the Smart Label as a way to provide full disclosure to consumers, Lowe says.

"We supported this legislation and we're for mandatory disclosure," he says. "We just think digital is the best way to do it, because you can provide more information through Smart Label than can ever fit on a package label."

The Smart Label also allows companies to inexpensively and continually change product information.

"Digital is so much more cost-effective in terms of changing information on an ongoing basis," Lowe says. "You can make real-time updates." Plus, he says transparency minimizes the consumer stigma about biotechnology.

"The fact that 70 percent of the food products contain some form of GMO (genetically modified organism), the fact that the FDA, the American Medical Association and other groups find it's safe is all information that's important and you have to overcome fear with information," Lowe says.

The other stipulation in the National Biotech Disclosure Law was that meat and milk raised from livestock fed biotech crops would not have to be labeled as GMO, which is important for the livestock industry.

"Clearly, we've argued all along the feed should not dictate what the final product is," Russell says.

Lowe agrees. "Our position is that if an animal is fed GMO feed it's still considered non-GMO," he says.

Lowe and Russell say the labeling debate was never one about the safety of GMOs. "Every reputable organization that's looked at this has found that GMOs are completely safe and consumers should rest assured in that," Lowe says.

"In the end, I think we're going to end up with something that is going to be good for consumers," Russell says. "And it's also going to protect this very, very important technology for farmers."