At the Non-GMO Project, we believe everyone has the right to know what's in their food and deserves access to non-GMO choices. For the past 15 years, we've protected that right with the most trustworthy, rigorous certification in North America for GMO avoidance.
With new and experimental GMOs entering the food supply unlabeled and unregulated, our work is more important than ever. But why does protecting your right to choose matter to you? What's at stake when we don't have clearly labeled, Non-GMO Project Verified choices?
Food is essential
Food is more than just the fuel we use to get our bodies from point A to point B. It's indispensable to our very existence and elemental to our experience as human beings. Food is a part of our traditions. Our cultural and social identities are intertwined with our food choices — and choices is the key word here.
The choices we make have consequences. When exercised collectively, their power grows. When we vote with our dollars we can help move the food system towards a nourishing, sustainable model that truly supports both people and the planet. And once we're paying attention to the kind of food system we want, we wake up to the critical need for regenerative practices, fair working conditions for producers and workers and the shift toward clean energy.
As our awareness about food grows, so does our realization of interconnectedness with our living environment.
The other label
The Butterfly label is second to none in rigor and transparency for GMO avoidance. Since 2007, the Non-GMO Project has monitored genetic engineering developments to preserve and build the non-GMO food supply. Genetic engineering is a rapidly evolving field — new GMOs aren't regulated or labeled by government agencies in the same way as traditional GMOs that contain DNA from other species. Most consumers want clear, meaningful and timely labeling of GMOs.
On January 1, 2022, the new federal bioengineered (BE) food labeling law went into full effect. The law was created in part because of public demand. However, the BE labeling law leaves out many common products made with GMOs. That means shoppers using BE disclosure labels to guide their choices don't have all the information they need.
Here are some of the products the BE label misses, and the Butterfly label catches:
- New GMOs
- Highly processed foods like sugar or cooking oil made from GMO crops
- Animal-derived products
- Many prepared foods, depending on the ingredient panel
For more information on the BE labeling law, check out What You Need To Know About Bioengineered (BE) Food Labeling.
Protecting your right to know and more
GMOs entered the food supply so discreetly that many people in the natural foods industry worried non-GMO resources such as organic seeds would be lost. In fact, that concern is part of what motivated Non-GMO Project founder and executive director, Megan Westgate. To this day, GMO contamination remains a major concern. When contamination events happen, we lose the genetic diversity of plant species that were cared for by our ancestors for millennia. The Non-GMO Project's segregation and testing requirements for high risk crops help to protect the non-GMO food supply, which in turn protects our entire food and seed supply. In the face of disruptions and extreme weather events, diversity means resilience.
As we live through the uncertainties brought by climate change, pandemic impacts and supply chain disruption, we become more aware of how interconnected our global systems truly are. Consumer concern has expanded. There is a growing awareness that our choices have implications beyond our immediate welfare.
Broadening our sphere of our concern is a good thing. That's how empathy grows, powerful coalitions are formed, and the systemic change we need so desperately becomes possible.
Our connectedness is our strength — and every butterfly effect starts with the Butterfly.
When GMOs first came on the market in the 1990s, the general public didn't know much about them. Thankfully, we've come a long way since then. Through the advocacy of activist organizations, including the Non-GMO Project, familiarity with the term GMO is nearly universal.*
We love to see awareness of the GMO issue grow (in the early days, most Americans were unaware that GMOs were entering the food supply). We believe that everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether or not to consume GMOs, and providing folks with the latest information is what the Non-GMO Project is all about.
However, there's still a lot of confusion about what a GMO is — and what it isn't — due mainly to the speed at which the biotech landscape evolves. It's not surprising. As science leaps forward, regulation lags behind. Meanwhile, new products continue to enter the market.
The Non-GMO Project's research team stays on top of new developments so we can bring you the latest information. So let's get down to it: What is a GMO, what are "new GMOs" and how does the changing landscape of biotechnology impact your food supply?
The application of biotechnology
The term "G-M-O" stands for genetically modified organism, a living organism whose genetic makeup has been altered using biotechnology.
The Non-GMO Project Standard defines biotechnology as the application of:
- in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or
- Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcame natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection.
Under the Standard, the application of biotechnology to an organism creates a GMO.
Biologists classify living organisms into groups based on their similarities or differences. It's called taxonomy. Between 8 and 9 million species have been identified and classified by scientists. Some organisms are closely related, others only distantly. The closer the relationship, the easier it is for their genetic material to merge through natural reproduction or traditional cross-breeding techniques. The more different two organisms are, the more hijinks are needed to overcome natural reproductive obstacles. Biotechnology provides those hijinks.
Biotechnology can be used to combine genetic material from two or more organisms, creating a "transgenic" organism. Some organisms are so dissimilar that their cells don't even recognize each other as potential mates. In answer to the question "will they or won't they?" — these two won't. If scientists want those cells to work together, they use biotechnology so the cells will accept each other despite their differences.
Traditional techniques, transgenic GMOs
The first GMOs to enter the food system were "transgenic" GMOs, meaning they contained DNA from two or more species. The first of these traditional GMOs were soy engineered to withstand herbicide and corn that produces its own insecticide. Genetically engineered corn and soy still dominate GMO acreage in North America, but they are not the only transgenic GMOs. Other transgenic GMOs include genetically engineered canola, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa — all engineered for similar traits as the original corn and soy — and papaya engineered for disease resistance.
The biotechnology that drives genetic engineering continues to evolve. The Non-GMO Project research team is monitoring a growing number of products made with new genetic engineering techniques that outpace regulations and evade labeling requirements designed for first-generation GMOs.
New GMO techniques
New GMOs are produced using techniques including gene editing and synthetic biology.
Gene editing tools such as CRISPR and TALEN have been heralded as a highly precise form of biotechnology that makes targeted cuts to an organism's DNA. Still, there are significant uncertainties with the process, including "off-target" effects when the DNA strand is edited at the wrong site or other unintended outcomes.
Synthetic biology (or synbio) is sometimes referred to within the biotechnology industry as "precision fermentation." This technique (as it appears in the marketplace at this time?) generally relies on genetically modified microorganisms such as engineered yeast or algae that are programmed to produce specific compounds. Synbio ingredients already appear in virtually every aisle at the grocery store, including fragrances, flavors, vitamins and even non-animal dairy proteins. This means you may have consumed synbio ingredients already without your knowledge.
New GMOs differ from traditional GMOs in crucial ways which impact their regulation and labeling:
- New genetic engineering techniques don't necessarily use foreign DNA to modify an organism.
- Some new GMOs that rely on foreign DNA are highly processed, so the modified genetic material is removed from the final product.
New GMOs face fewer regulatory hurdles than traditional transgenic GMOs because they lack foreign DNA in the final product.
For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently moved to eliminate government oversight of gene-edited crops that do not contain foreign DNA. That's right — no foreign DNA, no government involvement in the release, cultivation or sale of genetically modified organisms despite the fact they are novel organisms.
The absence of foreign DNA also impacts labeling. In the U.S. the new federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law does not apply to goods without detectable modified genetic material in the finished product. As a result, most products made with new GMO ingredients won't require a bioengineered food disclosure — and shoppers can't rely only on the BE label to be sure which products are made with GMOs.
Traditional GMOs represented only a handful of crops, but they've had a massive impact on North American acreage and the food supply. Today, most conventional prepared foods in the grocery store contain ingredients and inputs derived from GMOs. Meanwhile, new GMOs are proliferating in the supply chain. The techniques used to produce them are cheaper and more accessible than transgenic technology, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of biotech developers exploring the field.
In the past 30 years, a handful of transgenic GMOs and new techniques for creating GMOs have utterly disrupted the food system. This makes us wonder how many conscious eaters and thoughtful shoppers it takes to disrupt it again, to create a natural, regenerative and equitable food system. A few well-placed changes can move mountains. Imagine what we can accomplish together.
*Source: Organic and Beyond Ⓒ 2020, The Hartman Group, Inc.
There are a lot of labels at the grocery store, including one recent arrival: the new Bioengineered ("BE") food disclosure. The BE label sprung from the overwhelming public demand for labels on genetically engineered foods — but in practice, the label is confusing. It also fails to identify many common products made with GMOs.
For example, the BE food label opts for unfamiliar language (using the obscure term "bioengineered" instead of "GMO"). The labeling law contains loopholes and exemptions that make it difficult to tell which foods contain GMO ingredients. Plus, the bioengineered food disclosure can take one of several different forms, making it hard for shoppers to recognize.
What does the BE label leave out? Download this free infographic.
Are you one of the 43%* of North American shoppers who avoid GMOs at the grocery store? If so, you know consumers need clear and consistent labeling to make an informed choice about whether or not to consume GMOs — and unfortunately, the BE label doesn't provide those things.
There's a simple solution! To avoid GMOs, remember the red-yellow-green rule.
Bioengineered ("BE") Food Disclosure
Bioengineered food disclosures are part of the new federal labeling law that identifies some — but not all — products made with GMOs (more on that in a moment).
Red light means stop!
Be aware that products with a BE food disclosure contain ingredients made from GMOs.
For example, products with BE disclosures might include:
- Prepared foods made with genetically modified ingredients might be* labeled as bioengineered (an estimated 80% of prepared foods contain GMO-derived ingredients).
- GMOs made to hide the bumps and bruises of supply chain handling, including pre-cut fries made from potatoes engineered to mask bruising and discoloration or genetically engineered, non-browning apple slices.
- Genetically modified fruits such as papayas or novelty pink pineapples retail online for $29-39 each.
That BE "label" can take several forms: There's the recognizable BE food symbol (pictured left/right); a simple text disclosure ("Made with Bioengineered Food"); or a contact phone number, website or scannable QR code the shopper can access for more food information.
What You Need to Know About Bioengineered (BE) Food Labeling
*Keep in mind: The BE food label doesn't appear on all products made with GMOs, which means the absence of a BE disclosure doesn't necessarily indicate the absence of GMOs.
Self-made claims generally appear as added text on a product package claiming "GMO Free!" or "Made Without Genetically Modified Organisms."
Yellow light means slow down.
The trouble with self-made claims is they have no evidence to back them up. On the other hand, Non-GMO Project Verified products meet North America's most rigorous standard for GMO avoidance. Independent, third-party administrators assess verified products to guard against conflicts of interest, while a self-made claim lacks any such guard rails. With a self-made claim, the brand is essentially saying "Trust us!" without offering evidence to support the claim or any transparency into what it means.
Whether you prefer a rigorous and accountable certification or think a self-made claim is sufficient is, of course, up to you. Either way, the Non-GMO Project supports your right to choose what goes into your shopping cart — and we've been protecting the non-GMO food supply for more than 15 years.
Non-GMO Project Verification mark
Green light means go!
The Non-GMO Project Butterfly lets you know that the product you hold in your hand meets the highest standard forGMOavoidance. The Non-GMO Project Standard requires third-party review of the product, plus ingredient tracing, segregation and/or testing.
The Non-GMO Project is dedicated to clear, consistent labeling and transparent guidelines that shoppers can access at any time, all so that you know exactly what the Butterfly stands for!
Got questions about the Butterfly? Check out our FAQs.
To find more Verified products, you can always search our online product listings.
For more than 15 years, the Non-GMO Project has protected your right to choose whether or not to consume GMOs. With new laws, obscure terms and the next generation of GMOs coming from emerging techniques, we make it easy to make the right choice for you and your family.
It's as simple as red, yellow and green.
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe the gold standard for clean food is a joint effort: Non-GMO Project Verified and certified organic. Find out how the two hottest certifications at the grocery store make each other stronger in Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified: A Tale of Two Certifications.
*Source: Organic and Beyond Ⓒ 2020, The Hartman Group, Inc.
The Bioengineered (BE) Food label is part of the new federal law that identifies some — but not all — products made with GMO ingredients. The law came into full effect in the United States on January 1, 2022, following years of grassroots organizing, state actions and federal counteractions.
The GMO-labeling movement that gave rise to the BE food label has seen overwhelming public support: 88% of Americans agree GMOs should be labeled. However, the BE label doesn't provide the clarity Americans deserve.
For 15 years, the Non-GMO Project has worked to protect and expand the non-GMO supply chain. The BE labeling law's limitations make the importance of a transparent and equitable food system obvious while emphasizing how nonprofits such as the Non-GMO Project can continue to serve the public interest.
The best way to avoid GMOs is still the Butterfly
Remember that poll we mentioned, in which 88% of shoppers agreed GMOs should be labeled? Imagine the same poll with slightly different wording. Instead of asking if GMOs should be labeled, what if pollsters asked if bioengineered foods should be labeled? With that question, we could expect a much different result. Many people — maybe even a good chunk of that 88% — would throw up their hands and say, "What's a bioengineered food?"
That's one example of how the phrasing of a question can shape the response — just like the design or words displayed on a label directly impact the person trying to understand it.
The term "bioengineered" is unfamiliar to most of us. By using obscure language instead of widely-understood terms like "GMO" or "genetic engineering," the BE label leaves the average shopper in the dark.
Through exemptions and loopholes, the law excludes most products made with GMOs, including:
- Most products made with new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR (more on those in a moment).
- Highly refined products made from bioengineered ingredients that no longer contain detectable modified genetic material, like sugar or canola oil. This rule focuses on detection rather than transparency, undermining the public trust in food labels.
- Animal-derived products such as meat, dairy and eggs will not be labeled, even though GMO commodity crops such as corn and soy end up in livestock feed.
By focusing on detection rather than transparency, the BE labeling law is unlikely to impact GMO agriculture at all. Under the BE law, most GMOs remain hidden from the person buying them. For example, someone looking for sugar, canola oil or ground beef wouldn't be aware that their purchase likely supports GMO agriculture.
Meanwhile, GMO agriculture goes hand-in-hand with destructive practices, including the overuse of pesticides and the corporate consolidation that has put 60% of the world's seed supply in the hands of just four mega-corporations. Both of these are good reasons why someone might want to avoid GMOs, but the BE label doesn't address either. That's why shoppers that want a more sustainable and equitable food system need to look for the Butterfly, not the BE label.
Are new GMOs taking over?
When the Non-GMO Project began in 2006, a few agri-chemical corporations dominated the GMO landscape with commodity crops. But the limited market had a massive reach. Today, those crops cover hundreds of millions of acres. We continue to protect non-GMO choices in major commodities while also addressing new techniques that are changing the biotechnology landscape faster than anyone imagined possible.
"New GMOs" are products made from novel genetic engineering techniques such as gene editing or synthetic biology ("synbio"). New GMOs are entering the market at an alarming rate, and they pose a unique threat to the supply chain because they are largely unlabeled (the BE label doesn't cover most new GMOs) and unregulated. Some new GMOs are even marketed as "natural" or "non-GMO"!
Clean labels like the Butterfly must simultaneously protect the non-GMO supply of commodity crops while also working against new GMOs. That's why we employ a dedicated research team that gathers information on companies, products and technology. The Non-GMO Project is the only independent nonprofit in North America that monitors existing and emerging GMOs and the companies that make them.
Our researchers have recently seen a dramatic increase in the number of biotech companies creating new GMOs. They are currently following more than 460 companies — a nearly 300% increase in only five years. "That number just keeps getting higher," says Executive Director Megan Westgate. "Also, the purposes for these companies have broadened."
"Animals are being engineered with human DNA for medical purposes, but then that meat is being approved for human consumption," Westgate explains. Synbio "heme" (the blood-like substance that gives the Impossible Burger its meaty taste) was sold to consumers before the FDA determined its safety. "Goats are being engineered to produce spider silk for cosmetics — and these examples really are just the tip of the iceberg."
Shoppers want non-GMO choices — and more!
GMOs aren't the only thing that's changing. Consumer priorities are shifting as well. Today's shoppers recognize the importance of the food supply and the need for systemic change. Megan Westgate shares her observations: "It's no longer just about knowing what's in their food," she says. "Consumer concerns regarding GMOs extend to farmers' rights, food security, social equity and the loss of biodiversity."
At the Non-GMO Project, our commitment to building and protecting the non-GMO food supply is unwavering. We protect your right to choose whether or not to buy and consume genetically engineered food. Together, we can transform our broken food supply into a regenerative system that serves everyone.
Have you seen a new label at the grocery store?
The new federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law went into effect on January 1, 2022. Under the law, BE disclosures are now mandatory on certain products made with GMOs. However, due to exemptions and a limited definition of a "bioengineered food," many products made with GMOs will not require disclosures.
How well does this law ultimately work for shoppers? Does it provide meaningful and consistent labeling of products made with biotechnology? Most importantly, what's the best way for you to keep GMOs out of your shopping cart?
We're here with the practical advice you need to navigate a new food label — plus an update on the BE law's ongoing challenges.
New BE label leaves shoppers in the dark
Most people are familiar with terms like "genetically modified organism" and "genetic engineering." Natural foods advocates (including staff at the Non-GMO Project) have been working for decades to raise awareness of GMOs in the food system.
The term "bioengineered," on the other hand, is new and enigmatic — and not in a good way.
Compared with the Non-GMO Project Standard's definition of GMO, "bioengineered" is a narrow and exclusive term. The difference between the two excludes many products that are made with GMOs from requiring a BE label.
Some of the products that fall into the gap include:
- Products made through new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR — These "new GMOs" made with emerging techniques are entering the market at an alarming rate.
- Highly refined products — The BE labeling law only applies to products with detectable modified genetic material. That means highly refined products such as canola oil made from genetically modified canola or sugar made from genetically modified sugar beets would not require a BE label because detectable modified DNA was removed during processing.
- Animal-derived products — Under the new law, meat, dairy and eggs are all exempt from BE disclosure. This is important because GMO commodity crops such as corn and soy are mainly used as livestock feed. Looking for Verified animal-derived products is one of the best ways to impact the GMO supply chain!
- Certain multi-ingredient prepared foods — Some prepared foods are exempt from BE disclosures even if they contain bioengineered ingredients — it depends on their order of appearance on the ingredient panel. Take our quiz to find out which GMOs will be labeled!
The absence of a BE disclosure does not mean a product is non-GMO. Ultimately, the labeling scheme leaves out many products shoppers seek to avoid.
The many faces of BE disclosure
Exemptions and loopholes aside, what will that label look like on products that must disclose bioengineered ingredients? Brands and manufacturers have a range of options to choose from.
A BE disclosure may appear as:
- A symbol
- A text disclosure
- A phone number or text message
- A scannable QR code
Inconsistent labeling is confusing to shoppers, and digital disclosures such as QR codes discriminate against people who don't have smartphones or reliable wifi access (rural communities, people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, etc).
The law is also rolling out amid ongoing supply chain issues which, Food Navigator reports, continue to complicate packaging and ingredient sourcing for many brands. It's unclear how effective enforcement of the law will be, as USDA investigations rely on consumer complaints to identify violations. Meanwhile, the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group, is suing the USDA, arguing that the regulation violates existing statutes and is ultimately unlawful.
Looking to avoid GMOs? Look for the Butterfly!
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe everyone has the right to know what's in their food, and to make an informed decision about whether or not to consume GMOs. Labeling must be accessible if it is to be effective. Information should be informative.
In the U.S., nearly half of all shoppers try to avoid GMOs*, and the new BE label doesn't provide the certainty they need at the grocery store. For that, shoppers look for the Butterfly, the symbol of North America's most rigorous and trustworthy certification for GMO avoidance.
The Non-GMO Project monitors new technologies as they emerge in the biotech industry. Our Standard is regularly revised to make sure your interests are served when you buy Verified products.
You know the label and you know what it stands for. Together, we can grow the non-GMO food supply, ensuring prosperity and biodiversity for generations to come.
One butterfly at a time.
*Source: Organic and Natural Report Ⓒ 2018, The Hartman Group, Inc.
Since its inception in 2007, the Non-GMO Project has advocated for meaningful, mandatory labeling of GMOs. And we are not alone: *65% of Americans believe GMOs should be labeled. So when the incoming federal labeling law for bioengineered (BE) foods was released, we hoped it would meet the public's desire for transparency.
We were disappointed. The BE labeling law, as written and passed in 2016, overlooks many products made from GMOs, making it insufficient. Meanwhile, labeling guidelines do not provide clear information to consumers about the food they are serving to their families.
Here’s what you can expect as this law becomes mandatory on January 1, 2022.
"Bioengineered" means GMO — just not all GMOs
The Non-GMO Project's definition of GMOs includes all the products of genetic modification covered by the BE labeling law. But the Butterfly doesn't stop there. As the technology that drives genetic modification continues to evolve, the products of new GMO techniques like gene editing are entering the supply chain.
The Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program keeps the products of new GMO techniques from being Verified. At the same time, our research team tracks developments in biotechnology to stay ahead of impacts on the food system.
By adopting the term "bioengineering," this law selects language that's unfamiliar to most shoppers. People know about GMOs. Most people do not know much about bioengineered food. The term causes consternation and the furrowing of brows.
For the BE food labeling law to truly serve consumer needs, it must be clear, transparent and able to keep pace with the technology it is meant to identify.
BE labeling options could cause confusion
The BE labeling law allows several options for how the Bioengineered disclosure appears on packaging. Brands might display the BE symbol or include a line of text. They might opt for a digital code or a contact phone number that would provide the inquisitive shopper with more information. These options offer flexibility to the manufacturer, but they also make information less accessible to people in stores. Electronic disclosures exclude people who face barriers to technological access, such as residents of rural areas or people who come from a low-income background. Anyone who isn't comfortable with pocket-sized tech or who is shopping with small children could also be impacted.
With each step away from clear and equally accessible labeling, the average shopper gets less information, compromising the very purpose of an effective labeling program.
Want to keep GMOs out of your shopping cart? Look for the Butterfly
What gets left out of the BE labeling law is just as important as what's included. For the *40% of shoppers looking to avoid GMOs, a "bioengineered" disclosure isn't enough.
Which GMOs are overlooked under the BE labeling law?
- Most products of new GMO techniques like CRISPR gene editing won't require a BE disclosure. That’s because the law focuses on foods containing detectable modified genetic material in the final product. Products that contain GMOs made with new techniques are currently untestable.
- Foods that are heavily processed contain little or no intact genetic material for accurate testing, so they also fall outside of BE disclosure. That includes very common products like sugar and cooking oil, as well as packaged goods that contain such ingredients.
- The BE labeling law only applies to food intended for direct human consumption. GMO crops for livestock feed take up millions of acres of agricultural land and ultimately support the human food supply — but the BE labeling law does not look at it. Because of the sheer volume of GMO commodity crops grown for livestock feed, choosing Verified meat, dairy, and eggs is the key to building a non-GMO future.
There are also complexities in the new law that prevent GMOs in multi-ingredient products from being disclosed. For example, a canned soup containing GMO corn would not require disclosure if the formulation lists meat as the first ingredient. Under the BE labeling law, it doesn't matter that the corn is prevalent and plainly visible in the product or that 92% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. It doesn't even matter that the corn might have detectable modified genetic material. With meat as the first ingredient, the product is not subject to disclosure. Even if water, broth or stock is the first ingredient and meat is the second, the loophole still applies because those kinds of liquids don't count.
Test your ability to predict where the BE label will show up with this quiz!
With so much remaining outside the scope of the BE labeling law, looking for a "bioengineered food" label may not be effective at keeping GMOs out of your shopping cart. These undisclosed genetically modified ingredients still contribute to GMO agriculture and acreage and the destructive, chemical-dependent practices that go with it.
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that everyone has the right to know what's in their food and to choose whether to consume GMOs. We welcome and encourage meaningful labeling of GMOs. The effectiveness of any labeling program relies on transparency, so the average person can understand quickly and easily what is being disclosed.
Until the BE labeling law meets that criteria, looking for the Butterfly remains your best option to avoid GMOs.
*Source: Organic & Beyond © 2020, The Hartman Group, Inc.
The first batch of genetically modified salmon raised in a U.S. facility has been sold from AquaBounty's facility in Albany, Ind. The GMO salmon were modified with DNA from both a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout to grow nearly twice as fast as non-GMO Atlantic salmon while consuming less feed.
Will GMO salmon be labeled?
The Non-GMO Project supports clear and transparent labeling of products made with or containing GMOs. AquaAdvantage salmon is listed as a “bioengineered food” under federal BE food labeling law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS). Because of this, AquAdvantage salmon sold by retailers must include a mandatory “Bioengineered Food” disclosure starting January 1, 2022. However, the GMO labeling scheme is not short on loopholes:
- Mandatory disclosures can take the form of the bioengineered foods label, a QR code or a phone number the consumer can dial for more information — a range that presents three very different experiences for a busy shopper in a grocery store.
- The voluntary disclosure period of the NBFDS is still in effect until the end of this calendar year, and it's unclear whether fish sold directly to consumers during this period will be labeled. AquaBounty has previously sold genetically modified salmon to unwitting consumers in Canada, where unlabeled GMO fish have been available since 2017.
Without standardized and accessible labeling — not to mention the confusing attempt to rebrand GMOs as "bioengineered foods" — shoppers continue to rely on the Butterfly to exercise their right to choose non-GMO.
Big names in food industry boycott GMO salmon
Consumers won't find AquAdvantage salmon at some of the biggest retail chains in the country, as 80 companies with more than 18,000 locations have pledged to not carry the GMO fish. The list includes grocery chains, restaurants, seafood companies and food service providers including Costco, who find the product incompatible with their sustainability policies. Hy-Vee issued a statement on their reasons for not carrying AquAdvantage: "In order to protect marine resources and ensure future seafood supplies, Hy-Vee strongly believes that genetically engineered seafood has no place in its stores."
Other companies that have publicly committed not to carry the GMO salmon include Kroger, Meijer, Target, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi, Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexo. For a detailed list of companies that are opting out of GMO salmon, visit Friends of the Earth's webpage.
FDA failed in environmental assessment of GMO salmon
A coalition of environmental groups have fought against the approval of genetically modified salmon for years, citing the risks it poses to native salmon populations. Critics of the GMO fish include The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity as well as several employees at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. On November 5, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the FDA violated environmental laws with its hasty approval of GMO salmon. The ruling calls out the FDA's failure to adequately assess the impact escaped GMO salmon could have on wild populations, stating, "The FDA knew that the company’s salmon operations would likely grow, with additional facilities being used for farming. Obviously, as the company’s operations grow, so too does the risk of engineered salmon escaping."
Salmon hold a place of particular importance to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest who lived and fished sustainably for centuries before the arrival of colonizers in the 19th century. In the words of Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians and of the Quinault Indian Nation,
"Salmon are at the center of our cultural and spiritual identity, diet, and way of life. It's unconscionable and arrogant to think man can improve upon our Creator's perfection as a justification for corporate ambition and greed."
While the FDA must now complete adequate assessments on the environmental risks of genetically engineered salmon, the ruling doesn't impact the current sales of AquAdvantage.
Find out more! Read Hidden GMOs in the Seafood Aisle
After a lengthy delay, the USDA published the final National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) in the Federal Register on December 21. This law, which you may have heard called the DARK Act, is the start of mandatory GMO labeling in the United States. It means that some—but not all—products containing GMOs will have to be labeled by 2022.
While the Non-GMO Project supports mandatory labeling, we are disappointed by the content of the final rule. It does not do enough to protect consumers and it does not offer American families the transparency they have been calling for.
Read the full law on the Federal Register
As you know, consumers have been demanding meaningful GMO labeling for more than 20 years. Fifty-four GMO labeling bills landed on ballots in 26 states, and consumers in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont successfully passed statewide labeling legislation. Unfortunately, the NBFDS took those hard-earned wins away from consumers by rolling back existing state laws and preventing any future state-level GMO labeling.
The Non-GMO Project was founded on the simple idea that everyone has the right to know what is in their food, and we are committed to helping make that right a reality for every shopper. The Project has always supported mandatory labeling legislation and even spearheaded efforts to help the USDA make the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard meaningful and intuitive for all consumers.
Consumers like you have been asking for transparency, campaigning for labeling, and voting for non-GMO options when you shop. Your hard work created the Non-GMO Project and helped bring more than 57,000 Verified non-GMO choices to consumers across North America. The USDA’s final rule is not good enough and we think you deserve better—so let’s continue to stand together in support of meaningful GMO labeling and Verified non-GMO choices.
What is in this new GMO labeling law?
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law requires some products that contain GMOs to bear a GMO disclosure. Some food products will start to include a disclosure in 2020, but food producers are not required to be in full compliance until 2022.
Unfortunately, this law:
- Exempts most GMO foods that have been processed and refined, which represent the majority of GMO foods. A product can have many different highly refined GMO ingredients and still not be labeled under this law.
- Largely exempts GMO ingredients developed through techniques such as CRISPR or RNAi because many will not contain detectable GMO DNA.
- Mandates the use of the new term bioengineered instead of the familiar “GMO” in disclosures. If you’ve never heard of “bioengineered” food, you are not alone!
- Allows an unreasonably high five percent per ingredient threshold for GMO contamination. For context, the European Union uses a 0.9 percent threshold for most foods—so does the Non-GMO Project.
- Falls behind the rapid introduction of new GMOs by only updating its list of GMO foods once per year.
- Fails to include any technical requirements to ensure that GMO testing is meaningful (e.g., testing method, accreditation of labs, sampling plan requirements.)
- Has no penalty at all for failing to comply with the law. This is in stark contrast to the USDA’s National Organic Program, which levies fines of up to $11,000 per violation.
Some GMO foods will be labeled “bioengineered” or “BE”
It is important to understand that GMO foods won’t say they contain GMOs, they will say they are “bioengineered.” While 97 percent of consumers are familiar with the term GMO, most people do not understand what bioengineered food means. Typically used only as a medical term, “bioengineered” is not even included in the USDA’s Agricultural Biotechnology Glossary, highlighting the fact that it was invented for this purpose. Using intentionally confusing terminology misleads consumers and keeps them in the dark.
It is clear that using “bioengineered” instead of “GMO” or “genetically engineered” is an attempt to distance labeled products from the overwhelming consumer rejection of GMO foods. This is unacceptable and the Non-GMO Project feels it shows a great disregard for the American public. Unfortunately, the labeling confusion does not end there. The NBFDS does not even require products that need a BE disclosure to have a plain-text label. Consumers will need to scan QR codes, visit websites, send text messages, or make telephone calls while shopping in order to find out if some of their food contains GMOs.
The good news in the face of this disappointing law is that the Non-GMO Project’s mission is unchanged. We are still committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices. A product without a bioengineered disclosure could still contain GMOs, but the Non-GMO Project Verified mark always means a product is compliant with North America’s most trusted and most rigorous Standard for GMO avoidance. You have the right to know what is in your food—without needing to memorize regulatory loopholes or jump through hoops in the grocery store.
Do you have questions about the NBFDS? Post them in the comments below or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read part two of this blog