The USDA recently approved a new, genetically modified purple tomato for cultivation in the U.S. The tomato is engineered to be high in anthocyanins, a purple pigment with antioxidant properties reported to have health benefits. The modifications have also increased the GMO's shelf life.
The purple tomato was created by scientists at Norfolk Plant Sciences in the U.K. It is a mixture of old and new: The purple tomato's longer shelf life echoes the characteristics offered by the first GMO approved for human consumption (also a tomato). Scientists used traditional GMO techniques to add snapdragon genes to a tomato, resulting in a dark-fleshed fruit with generous antioxidant levels. And those antioxidants, while new to the tomato, are frequently found in existing fruits and vegetables.
The purple tomato's story weaves together breakthroughs and encores — leaving us with questions about its usefulness.
The most common GMOs (think soy, corn, cotton, alfalfa) are engineered with traits that appeal to the farmer or manufacturer. For example, Roundup Ready crops can withstand multiple applications of glyphosate, making it easier to apply weedkiller to the crop (though using more weedkiller has its own problems. Many varieties of GMO corn produce their own insecticide, providing increased pest resistance (though the trait also has some negative impacts. Non-browning GMO apples are attractive in schools or hospitals where food is prepared hours before it is served (though there are non-GMO apples that resist browning.
On the other hand, the purple tomato joins a relatively short list of genetically engineered foods with traits designed to benefit the person who eats it. The GMO's color is due to added snapdragon genes that cause the tomato to produce anthocyanins — a pigment with antioxidant properties thought to have health benefits. Anthocyanins may help to reduce inflammation, protect against type 2 diabetes, or even fight cancer.
Purple flesh isn't the only novel characteristic of this GMO. Reports indicate plans to introduce the GMO at farmers' markets, where sellers can talk with interested eaters about the fruits proposed benefits. Furthermore, purple tomato seed could ultimately be made available to home gardeners — a significant departure from the restrictions faced by farmers who grow GMO commodities.
The purple tomato is also the first GMO to be deregulated under the new SECURE rule, which went into effect in 2020. The SECURE rule streamlined some aspects of GMO regulation, effectively removing many GMOs from USDA oversight, and was the first substantial revision of biotechnology regulation since 1987.
The genetically modified purple tomato is not the first genetically modified tomato. In fact, the first GMO ever approved for human consumption was a tomato — the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered for hardiness and longer shelf life.
Also, the purple tomato is not the first GMO whose modified traits promise a health benefit to the consumer. For example, the Sicilian Rouge tomato is engineered for higher levels of an amino acid believed to aid in relaxation and help lower blood pressure (the Sicilian Rouge is currently available only in Japan).
It is not the first purple tomato. Other varieties with deep, dark skin include heirloom Cherokee Purple or traditionally cross-bred Indigo Apple tomatoes. It is not the only food high in anthocyanins, either — berries, cherries, pomegranates, cabbage and eggplant are a few of the many excellent natural sources of anthocyanins.
This makes us wonder: Is a genetically modified, high-anthocyanin tomato really the best use of cutting edge science? Has the team at Norfolk Plant Sciences reinvented the wheel? Genetic modification is an expensive process that, in this case, delivers a niche product with a trait already found in various natural foods (more on that in a moment). Nevertheless, lead botanist Cathie Martin would like to expand the niche. According to an interview in Fast Company, Martin foresees applying the same process to "bananas, oranges, and countless other fruits."
In the meantime, you can reach for blueberries or blackberries if you'd like to increase your anthocyanin intake. Or try cabbage. Or pomegranates. Or grapes (grape juice and wine have benefits as well!) or eggplant. Also, purple carrots. Or black beans. Or cherries, elderberries, strawberries, chokeberries, açai, blood oranges, and so on.
This spring, we're offering three stories on biotech's biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series, "Are GMOs really going to save the world?" Part One looks at Golden Rice, one of the most controversial GMOs ever created. Don't forget to check out Part Two, How Useful are GMOs on a Warming Planet? and Part 3, Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?
The biotech industry loves to talk about precision.
For example, advocates for genetic engineering and genetic modification have adopted the term "precision agriculture" to rebrand unpopular technologies that produce GMOs. Divorced from its meaning, precision agriculture sounds very attractive indeed, as if the untidiness of life — and farming — can be tamed if only we apply a sharp enough blade.
Our regular readers know precision agriculture by its other names, "genetic modification" and "genetic engineering." One genetically engineered crop, in particular, Golden Rice, exemplifies the hype and hyperbole of modern biotechnology.
Golden Rice is genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. It was developed in the late 1990s to treat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) — a form of malnutrition that can lead to blindness and death. VAD mainly impacts children and expectant mothers in developing economies across Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (where plain white rice provides daily calories but little actual nutrition).
From a distance, the theory of Golden Rice offers elegant, even algebraic simplicity: If we add the thing that's missing (Vitamin A) to the thing that people suffering from malnutrition eat every day (rice), then — presto! — deficiency solved!
In practice, it doesn't work that way.
Vitamin A deficiency is not an isolated problem. It is a product of extreme poverty intertwined with inequality's social and economic drivers. Effective solutions are systemic rather than targeted, and the realities of extreme poverty quickly undo a "precise" tool like Golden Rice.
How does Golden Rice fail as a "silver bullet" solution? And what can we do instead?
"Golden Rice" wears rose-colored glasses.
The biggest problem with Golden Rice is tied directly to the reason it was created in the first place: People afflicted with VAD rely on very limited diets, and those limitations make Golden Rice ineffective.
People must consume Vitamin A with fat for the body to use it. In regions where people rely on rice to survive, the fruits and vegetables containing copious amounts of the stuff are unavailable — neither are fat-bearing foods like oils or meat. Even if Golden Rice replaced white rice, the lack of diversity in the local diet prevents it from doing any good.
Time is another enemy of Golden Rice. Beta carotene — the precursor to Vitamin A that gives Golden Rice its color — deteriorates over time. How the grain is stored and transported impacts how much of the supplement gets to the people who need it. Vacuum-sealing and refrigeration seem to slow nutrient loss, but people in rural and impoverished areas rarely have these kinds of resources. Again, the conditions that cause VAD also undermine the efficacy of Golden Rice.
Research into Golden Rice's effectiveness has produced skewed results because studies operate under ideal conditions that don't reflect the realities of the regions most affected by VAD. For example, a 2008 study provided a daily butter ration to each participant, optimizing the absorption of Vitamin A — a benefit that is not available to most families facing VAD.
In the end, Golden Rice is most effective for people who don't need it — people with diverse diets and access to refrigeration — meaning that it's not really effective at all. Providing the basic human needs that would increase Golden Rice's effectiveness — improved nutrition, healthcare and basic infrastructure — would go a long way to solving VAD itself, not to mention many of the other ills of extreme poverty.
With more dietary options, the foods that naturally deliver Vitamin A could do their work, providing essential nutrients and the healthy fats needed to metabolize them. Consistent health care is a perfect delivery system for the Vitamin A supplementation programs that have already been highly successful — as well as other life-saving treatments.
Where would we be today if we had applied the resources used to develop Golden Rice over the past 20+ years directly to the VAD crisis and its underlying causes?
Farmers choose the best seeds — and they don't choose Golden Rice.
Another obstacle to Golden Rice's success is adoption: Will farmers in affected regions choose to grow it, and how will those crops perform?
Golden Rice cross-bred with locally grown rice produces offspring suitable to a given area, but these crosses often have low productivity. In 2017 in India, local rice varieties crossed with Golden Rice produced pale and stunted plants. Unsurprisingly, low performance is an unappealing trait for farmers. A study in the Philippines (the first country to approve Golden Rice for commercial cultivation) concluded farmers are unlikely to plant the low-yielding crop. "Some [farmers] might adopt Golden Rice if it could fetch a premium in the market, but extremely poor customers are unlikely to pay it."
Again, the roadblocks of poverty and necessity undermine Golden Rice's effectiveness.
Failing diversity = future catastrophe
Reliance on a single crop such as Golden Rice is very dangerous even with the best intentions.
The people impacted by VAD rely on diets with little diversity. Even if Golden Rice effectively controlled VAD (a claim we've challenged above) and even if the adoption overcame practical barriers (ditto), distributing a handful of rice seed varieties to support millions of people across a massive land area increases the fragility of the food system. Genetic uniformity is a welcome mat to plant pests and diseases — threats that are only increasing in the changing climate whose effects are forecast to disproportionately impact the Global South, including all the regions affected by VAD.
The Non-GMO Project was founded on the belief that every person has the right to adequate, nutritious and natural food. Real solutions are based on a holistic understanding of the problem and must work with the messy realities of our troubled world.
We support the fastest, most effective and longest-lasting solutions to suffering worldwide and we have yet to see an offering from the biotech industry that stands up to scrutiny.
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.
You probably already know that the Non-GMO Project requires GMO testing all the way back to animal feed—it’s one component of our program that sets it apart from the new federal GMO labeling law and other GMO avoidance programs that don’t check out what animals eat. This is important because most GMOs are large-scale commodity crops such as soy and corn. These crops are grown primarily for animal feed or biofuel—not for human consumption. It takes a lot of corn, soy, alfalfa, and other commodity crops to feed animals. Since we all want to increase access to non-GMO choices and reduce contamination pressure, animal feed is an important leverage point in our food system.
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made. If you choose to eat animals or animal-derived foods, choosing Non-GMO Project Verified is one of the biggest ways you can help support a non-GMO future. However, reducing or eliminating your consumption of products that come from animals is another powerful way to impact our shared food system.
The market for meat alternatives is exploding—more and more of these products are landing on grocery store shelves every month. It can be hard to keep track of which of these products are actually vegan or vegetarian, and harder yet to tell which ones contain GMOs. We’re here to help give you GMO transparency, but the ethical decisions surrounding animal welfare and meat consumption are up to you.
Author’s note: The next section discusses some of the harsh realities of the meat industry. If you don’t want to read about animal suffering, you might want to skip ahead.
A New Way to Make Meat
“Clean” meat has been all over the news in recent months. Also known as lab-grown meat, in vitro meat, craft meat, cell-cultured meat, cellular meat, or cell-based meat, this is actual meat that has been cultured in a lab instead of grown inside an animal. Some people are excited about this technology because it could mitigate the negative impacts of animal agriculture without requiring meat eaters to stop eating meat. Animal welfare aside, there are some strong environmental arguments to be made for a reduction in animal consumption. Factory-farmed animals require significantly more farmland, water, and energy than plant-based foods do. They also produce a disproportionate share of the emissions that contribute to climate change. For these reasons, meat consumption has been identified as one of the key factors contributing to the sixth mass extinction.
To make lab-grown meat, cells are taken from a live animal in a procedure that resembles a biopsy. These cells grow in a solution that includes both nutrients and fetal bovine serum (FBS). FBS is made from the blood of cow fetuses after they have been harvested from butchered pregnant cows. Many people have ethical concerns about this type of meat, which is decisively not vegetarian. The creator of the first lab-grown burger estimated that a single burger requires 50 liters (that’s more than 13 gallons) of FBS. At an estimated average of 300ml per fetus, that means about 160 cow fetuses per burger.
More FBS math for the curious
Are These Clean Meats Made with GMOs?
We don’t know yet. Many companies around the world are working on different types of lab-grown meat, and they are all being fairly secretive about their ingredients and processes right now. It is possible that some of these clean meats will not involve GMOs, so there may be Non-GMO Project Verified lab-grown meat in the future. However, it’s likely that some of these products will involve GMOs, so our team of full-time researchers is keeping a watchful eye on clean meat around the world. We carefully track the moves of hundreds of biotech companies so you don’t have to!
None of this “clean meat” is on the market in North America yet—you won’t accidentally buy it while trying to find a veggie burger at your local retailer. Most of these foods are only available at select restaurants in places like NYC or LA. However, they are poised to enter our food system soon, as it appears the American USDA and FDA are likely to fast-track in vitro meats. These agencies have publicly announced their intent to avoid legislation around clean meat and plan to “foster these innovative food products.”
The meat alternatives that are available at grocery stores are made from plants, not animals. Many of our readers and engaged shoppers have written to us asking for clarification on the differences between the internet sensation the Impossible Burger and its most similar competitor: the Beyond Meat burger. Let’s compare!
GMO: Impossible Burger
The Impossible Burger doesn’t use FBS or animal cells—it is entirely plant-based. We’ve talked about the Impossible burger before, so you may remember that it uses GMO-derived heme to make a veggie burger that “bleeds.” Heme is the iron-rich compound that makes meat look red and taste metallic. Essentially, it is what makes meat...meaty.
Heme is found in blood and muscle tissue, but it can also be found in the roots of soy plants. It would take a lot of naturally-growing soy to make enough heme for commercial use, so Impossible Foods uses GMO yeast instead. Putting the soy genes that make leghemoglobin into yeast results in a GMO yeast that excretes heme.
Since animal welfare is a key concern for many veggie burger fans, it’s important to note that Impossible Foods tested its heme on animals. Many people do not consider a product to be completely vegan if animals were used or harmed during its creation—we’ll let you decide for yourself. Ultimately, Impossible Foods’ argument that animal testing was necessary to advance animal welfare falls flat because plenty of other companies create great meatless foods without using animals at all. For example:
Non-GMO Project Verified: Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger
Beyond Meat makes the Beyond Burger, which is Non-GMO Project Verified and completely vegan—absolutely no animals or animal testing involved. The Beyond Burger gets its 20 grams of protein from peas and its red color from non-GMO beets and annatto instead of heme. The Beyond Burger is free of both soy and gluten—good news for anyone who is sensitive to those ingredients.
Beyond Meat products have been dominating the headlines in recent months, but Tofurky, Hilary’s, Sweet Earth Natural Foods, Big Mountain Foods, Gardein, MorningStar Farms, Yves Veggie Cuisine, Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, Maika Foods, Lightlife, and Quorn also make excellent meatless burger options that are Non-GMO Project Verified.
Find more Verified meatless treats
These fancy new meat alternatives are great, but we’d be fools to forget the classics. These traditional vegan protein sources are delicious, inexpensive, and can be made at home without wasteful packaging:
- Tofu is soybean curd pressed into a block. It’s a versatile food that’s been around for more than 2,000 years. Tofu is a GMO risk because it is made from soy. About 94 percent of the soy grown in North America is genetically modified, but there is non-GMO soy too! Look for Non-GMO Project Verified tofu next time you shop—there are over 200 Verified choices.
- Tempeh is also typically made from soy, but it is more nutritious than tofu. This cultured soy product uses a special fungus to create a dense soybean cake that is absolutely perfect for slicing, marinating, and pan frying. One serving of tempeh has over 30 grams of protein—well over half of what most people need in a day.
- Seitan is a chewy and protein-rich food made by cooking wheat gluten in broth. It’s the basis for many bacon substitutes, chicken alternatives, and mock duck—an international favorite. While it’s wheat-based, seitan can also contain GMO risks such as nutritional yeast and soy sauce. The best thing about seitan is that it can be made at home quickly and easily.
Whether you’re a dedicated vegan, enthusiastic carnivore, or somewhere in-between, you have the right to know what is in your food and you deserve access to non-GMO choices. “Clean meat” is not particularly clean yet, but there are plenty of meatless non-GMO choices available. We’re here to help you make informed choices—what you eat is up to you!
If you have a favorite meat alternative or meatless recipe, post it in the comments!
Read part one of this blog.
Jump to quiz
Jump to FAQs
Read the NBFDS
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard requires some food producers to put labels on some products that contain GMOs. Unfortunately, there are two glaring problems with this law that mean consumers will still not be able to tell what is in the food they are eating. Let’s take a closer look at disclosure options and exemptions under the NBFDS.
As a reminder, GMO foods won’t say they contain GMOs, they will say they are “bioengineered food.” However, many products will not even say that. A text disclosure is just one of four main options available. Food manufacturers have a few choices when it comes to disclosing GMO content:
- Use a text-only disclosure including “bioengineered food,” “contains a bioengineered food ingredient,” and “derived from bioengineering.” “Bioengineered food” means that all ingredients in a product are or could be derived from GMOs. “Contains a bioengineered food ingredient” means a product contains at least one GMO ingredient, and other ingredients may or not be made with GMOs. “Derived from bioengineering” is a special voluntary disclosure.
- Use one of these symbols instead of a text disclosure:
These symbols say “bioengineered” but they do not explain what that means or how to find more information about it.
- Use an electronic or digital link. Food manufacturers can put a QR code, digital watermark, or another scannable element on their packaging along with text such as “scan here for more food information.” This type of disclosure must be accompanied by a 24-hour phone number consumers can call to receive the same information. These types of disclosures do not have to say “bioengineered” on the package at all. This option presents several challenges. Scanning a package requires consumers to have a smartphone with them at the grocery store. It also requires them to have an app capable of scanning. In many cases, such scanning apps either cost money or come with confusing advertisements. The USDA’s own study on the feasibility of digital disclosures noted that nearly all participants experienced trouble using their phone to scan a digital link.
- Use text messaging. Brands can choose to put a phone number and instructions to send an SMS text message to that number for information. Food manufacturers cannot charge a fee for texting this service, but consumers who pay per text or have limited texting plans may still accrue fees from their cell phone provider.
Both text messaging and digital link methods are discriminatory. These methods are particularly unfair to people who face barriers to accessing a smartphone and data plan, such as people from low-income backgrounds, people who are senior citizens, and residents of rural areas.
While the telephone call option mitigates this to some extent because it does not require a smartphone, the Non-GMO Project does not believe it is feasible for consumers to make a phone call for each item they consider purchasing, particularly if they are shopping with children. This option also disproportionately impacts Americans living with disabilities that make using a telephone difficult.
Electronic methods of disclosure are discriminatory, inconvenient, and confusing. If consumers can’t intuitively understand what the disclosure means, then nothing is really being disclosed.
While the disclosure methods are confusing and burdensome, the exemptions allowed under the NBFDS are even more perplexing. With all of these loopholes, just a fraction of products that contain GMOs will be labeled at all. Animal feed, pet food, and personal care products are not covered at all. Only products that contain detectable GMO DNA will be labeled—this is a huge problem because so many processed foods contain untestable inputs such as beet sugar and canola oil.
Learn more about testing for GMOs
Meat and eggs are exempt, as are products in which meat or egg is the first ingredient. It’s important to understand that animal feed is not only unlabeled as a product, but it is out of scope for product evaluation as well. Conversely, when the Non-GMO Project verifies dairy, eggs, or meat it means the animal those products came from ate a non-GMO diet. If you choose to eat dairy, eggs, meat, or other animal products, choosing items that are Non-GMO Project Verified is the single biggest way you can help protect a non-GMO future.
Learn more about the importance of non-GMO animal feed
All of these exemptions make it impossible it know whether a product lacks a disclosure because it is non-GMO or because there is an applicable loophole. There are so many exemptions—and exceptions within exemptions—that the average person can’t possibly keep track of what is covered.
Take the Quiz
To illustrate this point, let’s look at a few examples of products. In each example, assume that all the bolded ingredients are derived from GMOs.
All of these soups contain GMOs, but only one will be labeled under the NBFDS. Can you tell which one?
- Soup ingredients: chicken stock, corn, chicken, celery, carrots,
- Soup ingredients: chicken stock, chicken, corn, celery, carrots,
- Soup ingredients: vegetable broth (water, carrots, celery, paprika), chicken, corn, celery, carrots
In the list above, only number one would be subject to disclosure. Multi-ingredient foods with meat as the first ingredient are exempt (except for seafood, rabbit, and venison) even when the animal ate GMO feed. Water, stock, and broth don’t count. This means soup number two does not get a label because it has chicken as the second ingredient after stock, even though the very next ingredient is GMO corn. Soup number three does not get a label for the same reason even though it lists the non-exempt ingredients in the broth separately. Soup number one does get a label because it has corn as the second ingredient and chicken as the third.
Let’s try another. All three of these frozen, breaded fish nuggets contain GMOs. Which one would get a BE label?
- Fish product ingredients: minced catfish, water, corn meal, corn flour, salt, baking powder, paprika, canola oil, flavoring
- Fish product ingredients: minced pollock, wheat flour, water, canola oil, egg, cornstarch, onion powder, flavoring
- Fish product ingredients: minced chicken, minced pollock, minced haddock, minced cod, enriched flour, canola oil, water, yellow corn flour, sugar, yeast, natural flavor
In the list above, only number two would be subject to disclosure. Products with seafood as the first ingredient are subject to labeling—except catfish, so fish product number one is exempt. Fish product number three contains three types of seafood, which is subject to labeling, but it contains more chicken filler than it does pollock, so it is exempt too. Only the all-pollock fish nugget would be labeled—but only if the GMO DNA in the cornstarch or flavoring can be detected after processing.
One more quiz. Again, all of these chocolate candies contain GMOs. Can you tell which one would be labeled with a BE disclosure?
- Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, milkfat, soy lecithin, canola oil, vanillin, artificial flavor
- Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, cacao, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, emulsifier, artificial flavor
- Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, soy lecithin, natural vanilla
It’s impossible to tell for certain, but probably none of these. All three chocolates contain refined GMO ingredients. The sugar and canola oil can’t be tested for GMOs; there is not enough intact DNA. The soy lecithin could possibly contain detectable GMO DNA in some circumstances, but not in others. The NBFDS only requires labeling if the GMO DNA is detectable in the finished product. Unfortunately, this policy just keeps consumers guessing.
The Non-GMO Project thinks you deserve better.
These examples make it painfully clear that this law does not deliver the transparency American citizens have been demanding for decades. Most people do not walk around with an encyclopedic knowledge of GMO risks and regulatory details. They certainly cannot tell if an ingredient has detectable GMO DNA just by looking at an ingredient panel—no one can. How could anyone ever know if a product lacks a BE disclosure because it is truly non-GMO or because it falls into one of the many exempt categories in this law?
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard doesn’t label all types of GMOs, but the Non-GMO Project still does because conscientious consumers like you demand it. We will continue to listen to shoppers and provide the trustworthy labeling that the USDA has failed to offer. Unlike the NBFDS, the Non-GMO Project Standard includes all products of biotechnology, not just the convenient ones. It follows ingredients back to their source rather than exempting processed ingredients, because the Non-GMO Project knows you can’t start with a GMO ingredient and process it into something that somehow isn’t the product of genetic engineering.
Non-GMO Project Verified will remain the most trustworthy and accessible way for consumers to avoid GMOs. The Non-GMO Project will continue to support consumers by offering GMO transparency under North America’s most rigorous standard for GMO avoidance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Check out these FAQs to learn more about the National Bioengineered Food Standard and what it means for you. Have other questions? Post them in the comments or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why does the USDA use the term “bioengineered” or “BE”?
The Non-GMO Project believes the USDA chose “bioengineered” rather than the widely-understood “GMO” in order to distance labeled products from the overwhelming consumer rejection of GMO foods. While nearly all consumer are aware of “GMOs,” bioengineered is a new term that does not even appear in the USDA’s Agricultural Biotechnology Glossary.
When will I start seeing bioengineered disclosures on food?
Some products will start including a BE symbol or disclosure in 2020. Food producers are not required to comply with this law or label their products until 2022.
If a product doesn’t have a USDA BE seal, does that mean it is non-GMO?
No. The USDA’s labeling law includes many exemptions, meaning many foods derived from GMOs will not be labeled. For example, nearly all heavily-refined ingredients such as beet sugar and canola oil will be exempt. Many products that contain meat or eggs will be exempt. Foods produced by certain small manufacturers will be exempt. Food that comes from animals on a GMO diet will not be labeled. Pet food, animal feed, alcohol, household goods, and personal care items are completely exempt. Never assume that the absence of a BE disclosure means the absence of GMOs.
Will the NBFDS label animal products that come from animals who were fed GMO animal feed?
No, animal feed will not be evaluated under the NBFDS. GMO animal feed sold as a finished product will not be subject to the NBFDS either.
If a product contains meat, will it have to disclose GMOs?
Meats and eggs are exempt. Some multi-ingredient foods that contain meat will require a disclosure but some will be exempt. If a food has multiple ingredients and meat (but not seafood) or egg is the first ingredient, it is exempt even if other ingredients are GMOs. If meat or egg is the second ingredient and the first ingredient is not water or stock, the product would be subject to the NBFDS.
There are many exemptions for meat and egg products; do not assume that the absence of a BE disclosure means the absence of GMOs.
Will foods made with new GMO techniques such as CRISPR or TALEN require a BE label?
Many foods made with new genetic engineering techniques will not require a disclosure, but some will. The NBFDS looks at detectable modified DNA in the final food product and is not interested in the methods that went into the genetic engineering. It is not yet possible to test for GMO content in many products of new genetic engineering techniques. If modified DNA cannot be detected in a product, it will not require disclosure.
Will foods with processed or refined ingredients have a BE disclosure?
The NBDFS evaluates food based on whether it has detectable modified DNA. Many processed ingredients (e.g., canola oil, beet sugar) do not typically contain detectable modified DNA because the processing methods damaged or removed the DNA. Such products and ingredients will not be labeled under the NBFDS.
What is the difference between “bioengineered food,” “contains a bioengineered food ingredient,” and “derived from bioengineering?”
All three possible text disclosures mean a food contains at least one GMO ingredient; the difference is how many ingredients might be GMOs and whether those ingredients or their manufacturer are covered under the NBFDS.
- “Bioengineered food” applies to single-ingredient GMO foods and foods for which every ingredient is a GMO risk. For example, a single ear of GMO sweet corn or a canned soup with three GMO ingredients and two ingredients that are on the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods but may or may not actually be GMO.
- “Contains a bioengineered food ingredient” applies to multi-ingredient foods that have some ingredients which are or could be GMOs and some ingredients that are not on the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods. For example, a cheese alternative that contains GMO soy and also olive oil (which could not be from a GMO.)
- “Derived from bioengineering” is for voluntary labeling in situations where an ingredient (e.g., refined canola oil) is derived from a GMO but does not require a disclosure under the NBFDS. This voluntary text claim may also be used by exempt entities such as very small food manufacturers who wish to make a disclosure.
Why are eggplant, apple, salmon, and pineapple not on the Non-GMO Project High-Risk list?
The Non-GMO Project does not currently consider these inputs to be high risk because they are not widely commercially available. The Non-GMO Project feels it would be burdensome and unreasonable to require food producers to pay to test their eggplant, for example, because GMO eggplant is so uncommon in the United States. While the Non-GMO Project uses a risk assessment matrix to determine when an input should be considered “high risk,” the USDA simply lists foods that may be bioengineered.
How do I tell if personal care items have GMOs in them?
The NBFDS is limited to some food and supplement products; it does not label GMOs in personal care products, clothing, cleaning products, or packaging.
Does the NBFDS label GMOs in pet food?
No. Most commercial pet foods contain GMOs and animal products from animals fed a GMO diet. To keep GMOs out of your pet’s food bowl, you’ll need to look for the Non-GMO Project Verified mark.
What are the rules for QR codes, text message disclosures, and phone line disclosures?
Brands can choose to use electronic methods to disclose GMOs instead of a symbol or plain text disclosure. If they choose a telephone number, it must be available 24/7. The manufacturer cannot charge you for text messages, but your cell carrier still can. If the manufacturer chooses a web page, the disclosure must be on the first page and it cannot contain advertisements or promotional materials.
What if I don’t have a cell phone, a data plan, or access to wifi to use electronic disclosures?
Unfortunately, some people who lack access to technology are unfairly discriminated against as part of this law. The best way to be sure you are choosing non-GMO products is still to look for the Non-GMO Project Verified mark.
The NBFDS says that electronic links may not ”collect, analyze, or sell any personally identifiable information about consumers or the devices of consumers.” However, it also says that if such information must be collected, it “must be deleted immediately and not used for any other purpose.”
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 email@example.com.
Read part two of this blog