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There's a lot going on. 

In case you missed it, there have been several news stories lately regarding the food system — including some that impact your right to choose whether or not to consume GMOs. As always, the Non-GMO Project continues to advocate for natural, resilient and sustainable food supply, to build and protect our genetic inheritance, and to offer Verified options.

Now, the news roundup.

White House promotes biotechnology… again

President Biden recently issued an executive order to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing across government agencies and industries — including agriculture. This order blindly promotes biotechnology in the food sector — a misguided and expensive move. It takes the food system in the wrong direction to meet its stated goals of food security and climate adaptation. 

We believe that agriculture should work with nature rather than against it. We support expanding holistic, resilient and equitable solutions in the food system. We are deeply concerned about the ongoing privatization of the food supply, which places ever more of our essential resources into the hands of a few multinational corporations.

You can read our statement in response to the executive order here.

Big investment in "Climate-Smart Commodities"

The U.S. government selected the first round of grant recipients under the "Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities." The program earmarked $3 billion of the federal budget to reduce GHG emissions and increase carbon sequestration in major food crops and commodity production.

While this is an important first step, it doesn't go far enough. 

The food system desperately needs a bold transition to fully regenerative production. In its current form, the grant program could further subsidize GMO production systems for crops such as soy, corn, cotton and alfalfa. These GMOs are grown using fundamentally harmful methods — vast areas of monocropping with liberal pesticide applications, leading to "superweeds" and "superbugs." Reducing GHG emissions without addressing the production model's other major issues is only a partial solution. 

We welcome equally ambitious investment in an aggressive transition to diverse, non-GMO agriculture.

USDA packs Standards Board with government employees

The USDA is taking four seats on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) away from dedicated public volunteers and re-designating them to be filled by “Special Government Employees” (SGEs). The NOSB is a 15-member federal advisory board that makes recommendations on National Organic Program regulations, including which substances or practices to allow or prohibit in organic production.

With the Presidential Executive Order on biotechnology already telegraphing the federal government's support for GMOs, replacing public representatives with government employees is cause for deep concern. Organic supporters — including the Non-GMO Project — are left wondering if the appointment of government employees is part of a larger movement to include GMOs in organic production. 

GMO labeling win — QR codes are unlawful

The Center for Food Safety had a critical victory in their latest suit to address shortcomings in the federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law. A U.S. district court found using QR codes alone for BE disclosures unlawful and discriminatory. QR codes are inaccessible to Americans who don't use smartphones or live in rural areas with unreliable internet.

The finding is a big win for everyone who supports clear, meaningful GMO labeling. It eliminates the most egregious and discriminatory form of disclosure, forcing the USDA to revise the portions of the labeling law to remove the option alone on product packaging.

However, there are still issues with the Bioengineered Food labeling law — find out more here.

While we've ended on a positive note for GMO labeling, there are causes for concern in organics and agricultural biotechnology. Biotechnology in the food space continues to overpromise and underdeliver, increasing the need for costly and destructive inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers while failing to address hunger in the most vulnerable populations.  

The Non-GMO Project continues to work towards a natural, regenerative and equitable food system that honors traditional and Indigenous knowledge and empowers all people to care for themselves, the planet, and future generations.

In the 1990s, GMOs entered the food supply without public consultation or consent.

The first generation of GMOs were novel organisms created in a lab by combining DNA from different species. The genetically modified crops were engineered to withstand weedkillers or produce their own insecticide. While GMOs were added to common products that were consumed every day, the preferences of the people who would ultimately eat those products was never considered.

That lack of transparency is at the root of many of our concerns over GMOs. Food's role in human life is personal and nuanced. Food brings us together. It’s an essential part of many social and cultural traditions. Unnatural modification, undertaken without our input or consent, just rubs folks the wrong way – and rightfully so!

Because nobody asked for the public's opinion before adding genetically modified organisms to the food supply, the Non-GMO Project was founded to serve the millions of people who wanted to avoid them.

Trustworthy and rigorous

Since 2007, the Non-GMO Project has offered North America's most trusted and rigorous certification for GMO avoidance.

Because of our intense focus on GMOs, the Project can dive deeper and respond faster to new GMOs than other clean label certifications. The Non-GMO Project Standard is continually adapting to new technologies and verification requires ingredient segregation, supply chain tracing and testing for ingredients on the High-Risk List. No other non-GMO label offers that level of scrutiny.

For example, under USDA Organic Certification, genetically modified organisms are considered excluded methods, but contamination can occur in the absence of regular testing. Meanwhile, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act, the new federal food labeling law for bioengineered food, excludes most "new GMOs" created with emerging biotechnology techniques, leaving shoppers with an incomplete picture of the products they're purchasing and eating.

What You Need To Know About Bioengineered (BE) Food Labeling

Monitoring new GMOs around the world

The pace of biotech development is only speeding up. That's why it’s critical for us to keep an eye on what’s coming down the pike so we can better serve everyone who deserves accurate food labeling.

While the Butterfly seal helps you avoid GMOs that are already on the market, our dedicated research team tracks what’s on the horizon. The biotech industry is expanding at a staggering rate, fueled by funding from venture capitalists. Since we began monitoring developments in the field, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in activity and investment globally: Over a period of 5 years, the number of biotech developers working in this field grew by 300%.

GMOs are no longer limited to a handful of crops created by a few agrichemical corporations. New GMOs made using emerging and experimental techniques are less costly to produce than early GMOs were, with a much faster turnaround time. These products are entering the food supply virtually unregulated and unlabeled.

Towards a fair, equitable and just food system

Since the Non-GMO Project’s inception 15 years ago, our understanding of what’s at stake in the food system has grown.

Back then, we were among the highly motivated and deeply concerned folks in the natural food sector who knew instinctively we didn’t want GMOs in our food. We were concerned about the long term effects and uncomfortable with the lack of social engagement on a topic that is so personal to each of us. We questioned a system of agriculture that valued uniformity over resilience and privately-held patents over commonly-held genetic resources. Also, we worried that GMOs would erode the diversity of our genetic inheritance, leaving in their wake a homogenous, fragile system where there was once abundance and variety.

The passing years have validated all of those concerns and added a few new ones. We’ve witnessed the generational effects of increased chemical use from herbicide-resistant GMOs, farmers losing autonomy through restrictive user agreements and the erosion of individual expertise and Indigenous knowledge gained over millennia.

With so many ill effects, why does the GMO experiment continue? Who benefits from it? The expansion of GMOs in our food system benefits private corporations that hold patents on modified crops and the costly herbicides that go with them. Currently, new GMOs such as “animal-free” dairy proteins foreshadow a future of even more private ownership of essential commodities and an increase in lab-grown food.

Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?

 The Non-GMO Project doesn't answer to those corporations. We answer to the roughly 90% of people who support GMO labeling. In a fast-moving world with a changing biotechnology landscape, it's our responsibility to protect your right to choose.

On January 1, 2022, the bioengineered (BE) food labeling law came into full effect. This policy makes the United States the 65th country with a mandatory GMO labeling policy. 

Nations that enact clear and meaningful GMO labeling are responding to overwhelming public desire for it. In poll after poll, shoppers demand clear and consistent labeling. Research shows that the majority of people across Australia, Canada, Europe and the US want GMOs to be labeled.

However, not all labeling programs meet the public's needs. The law's scope, the terms used to identify products made with GMOs, and even the label's design can all impact its efficacy.

What makes (or breaks) a GMO labeling program, and where can the strongest (and weakest) labels be found?

No labeling in Canada

Canada grows GMOs on an estimated 26.9 million acres each year. At the same time, labs produce genetically engineered microbes and genetically modified salmon are grown in fish farms. 

That adds up to a lot of GMOs — and none of them are labeled in the store.

The lack of labeling is controversial. For example, in 2016, Canada became the first country to approve genetically modified AquaAdvantage salmon for human consumption. Within a year, an estimated five tons of unlabeled "frankenfish" had been unwittingly consumed by Canadians, despite a clear majority favoring mandatory labels.

Canada is not the only nation to leave shoppers in the dark. There are many other countries without any labeling requirement for GMOs.

"G-M-O-s in the U-S-A"

The U.S. is by far the largest producer in the world of GMOs. Of all the agricultural land in the world dedicated to genetically modified crops, 37.6% of it is in the States. And until relatively recently, there were no mandatory labeling laws. 

The labeling movement started at the state level, and by 2015 at least 18 individual states had taken steps toward labeling programs. That is when the federal government stepped in. 

The federal government passed a law that blocked state-level programs. The law ultimately evolved into the bioengineered (BE) food labeling law, replacing comprehensive state programs with a confusing and limited federal one.

What You Need to Know About Bioengineered (BE) Food Labeling

Unfortunately, insufficient labeling standards are common. Many countries across South America, Africa and Southeast Asia rely on programs that lack rigor and enforcement provisions. Examples include:

Peru

Bolivia

Ecuador

Senegal

Mali

Cameroon

Ethiopia

Jordan

Bangladesh

Thailand

Vietnam

India

The Bold and the Banned

A strong labeling program lets the consumer know whether or not a product was made with GMOs so they can make a choice that works for them. 

To do that, a GMO labeling program must:

• Apply to most or all products made with GMOs

• Include emerging genetic engineering techniques

• Incorporate an action threshold to address accidental GMO contamination in the supply chain (the lower the action threshold, the more ambitious the program)

• Adopt a consistent, accessible and easy-to-understand logo

Which regions' labeling programs meet this criteria? The list is a short one. 

At this time, only four regions around the world adopt the kind of comprehensive labeling programs outlined above: Australia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the European Union.

These regions also limit the cultivation of GMOs within their borders. The EU allows only 1 or 2 GMO crops, while Russia does not allow any. Australia banned most domestic cultivation of most GMOs in 2002 (though some states recently overturned their bans). While Saudi Arabia, in theory, allows some GMO cultivation, Saudi farmers have opted out of planting them

There are also a handful of purists out there, countries that adopted a complete ban. Zambia, Benin and Serbia have all gone to great lengths to conserve biodiversity, preserve trade partnerships and protect human and environmental health.

Click to explore this interactive map from the Center for Food Safety 

Meanwhile, GMO advocates argue against labeling with curious logic: "If there are no safety risks, why should GMOs require labels?" 

But their reasoning fails on two counts. 

First, the long-term safety of GMOs has not been proven, despite biotech industry claims. The same companies that develop and profit from GMOs conduct safety studies despite explicit conflicts of interest. 

Second, consumer information doesn't start and end with safety issues. Some people are motivated by fair trade requirements or humane animal treatment — should they have access to the information they need to make an informed choice? Absolutely!

Everyone has the right to know how their food was made, just as everyone has unique reasons for wanting to know. One person might avoid GMOs for cultural reasons, another for religious ones. Some have concerns about the environmental impacts or want to protect farmers' rights to save seeds.

Your reasons are your own, as are your choices. The Non-GMO Project provides the most trusted certification in North America for GMO avoidance. We protect your right to choose and give you the best tool to make that choice for yourself.

Non-GMO vanilla
Many of the processed foods that we see on grocery shelves today bear an ingredient label that says “artificially flavored.” Due to the prevalence of artificial additives in the marketplace, one of the questions we are asked most frequently from savvy shoppers is: “Why did I see the word artificial in the ingredients of a Non-GMO Project Verified product?”

Similar to how the word “modified” does not mean genetically modified when referring to modified corn starch or similar products, “artificial” does not inherently mean an ingredient is GMO. “Artificial flavor” is a term used by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to classify flavorings not found in nature or derived from natural elements (plants or animals). Artificial flavors are produced through synthesis in a lab to mimic the taste and chemical makeup of a natural counterpart. They are often used to cut costs for food producers. While this production process can be achieved without any genetic engineering—no GMOs required—some producers do choose to use GMOs.

It’s important to recognize that while artificial does not inherently classify ingredients as a GMO, some artificial ingredients do come from GMOs—especially GMO microorganisms. Those are the types of artificial ingredients that are addressed in the Non-GMO Project Standard.

The best way to avoid GMOs when you shop is to look for Non-GMO Project Verified products.

What Makes A Flavor

Flavors are added to food primarily for their taste rather than nutritional value. Think of strawberry jam—while the strawberries in the jam are flavorful, they wouldn’t be considered a flavor in that product. However, in a product like strawberry gum,.strawberry would be considered a flavor because it is present solely for taste.

In the US, flavors are regulated by the FDA, which enforces the Food Additives and Amendment Act of 1958. Under this law, the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of new food additives, including flavors, before they can be used in food products.

The FDA categorizes flavorings as either natural (e.g., vanilla bean extract, almond extract), artificial (e.g., synthesized vanillin, benzaldehyde), or spices (e.g., basil, cumin seed, or paprika). While artificial flavors are those not derived from natural elements, natural flavors are the processed and concentrated form of the plant or animal they came from. Spices are simply dried vegetables with no added flavoring. Ingredients traditionally regarded as foods, like onions, garlic, and celery, must be separately disclosed on a product’s ingredient list because they are not considered spices by the FDA.

Where We Come In

With thousands of flavoring substances in use today and varying methods used to produce them, it is impossible for consumers to tell if a product contains GMOs. That’s why the Non-GMO Project includes special provisions for evaluating microorganisms, including those used to produce artificial flavors, in our Standard. In many cases, this process goes all the way back to the growth medium the microorganism was grown on. Just like the milk from a cow that's raised on GMOs can't be Non-GMO Project Verified, a microorganism can’t eat GMOs and then produce Verified flavorings.

The next time you reach for that artificial vanilla flavor, Look for the Butterfly so you can be sure that product is non-GMO, right back to any microorganisms involved. Non-GMO Project Verified products are third-party tested and backed by our rigorous Standard to help take the guesswork out of shopping for you and your family.

Find Non-GMO Project Verified products

This content was originally posted on 5/28/2019.

The Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program allows participants to submit products to be evaluated against the Non-GMO Project Standard. Participants must demonstrate that their products are not made with genetically modified organisms, including products of biotechnology. Products that demonstrate their non-GMO status in accordance with the Standard may become Verified and use the Non-GMO Project Verified mark.

GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism in which the genetic material has been changed through biotechnology in a way that does not occur naturally by multiplication and/or natural recombination; cloned animals are included within this definition.

GMOs are changed through biotechnology, not through natural selection or traditional breeding methods.

Biotechnology is the application of:
a. in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or

b. 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.

Biotechnology means artificially altering DNA in a context where only the genetic material of an organism is altered or artificially merging DNA from different species which would not reproduce on their own. More specifically, and for the avoidance of doubt, biotechnology includes all of the following specific new breeding techniques:

Biotechnology means artificially altering DNA in a context where only the genetic material of an organism is altered or artificially merging DNA from different species that would not reproduce on their own.

GMO CROPS
The Non-GMO Project High-Risk List identifies inputs that may be, contain, or be derived from organisms that are known to be genetically modified and commercially available. These inputs and their derivatives are subject to additional scrutiny under the Non-GMO Project Standard. The majority of these crops are engineered to produce an insecticide or tolerate the application of an herbicide.

High-risk inputs include:

Monitored-risk inputs are those for which a GMO version exists, but is not widely commercially available. Such inputs may exist in the research and development stages, or may be inputs for which known GMO contamination has occurred. Other crops are included because they could be contaminated by cross-pollination from GMO crops.

Monitored-risk inputs include:

Monitored-risk inputs are evaluated like low risk inputs; their monitored status does not impact testing or affidavit requirements. However, the Non-GMO Project keeps a watchful eye on these crops in order to prevent potentially ensuing GMO varieties from entering the supply chain unchecked.

PROCESSED DERIVATIVES OF GMOS

Many common processed ingredients are derived from GMO crops, especially commodity crops such as corn and soy. The following non-exhaustive list includes some of the most common derivatives of high-risk crops.

Animal-Derived Ingredients

Livestock, aquaculture, and apiculture products are considered to be high-risk inputs because animal feed is very likely to contain GMOs such as corn, soy, and alfalfa. Animal-derived inputs must come from animals that ate a non-GMO diet to be used in Verified products. These inputs comply with the sampling and testing requirements of the Standard through the sampling and testing of Inputs to the animals’ rations and/or the seed used to grow the inputs to the animals’ rations.

Learn More

Download this guide as a PDF

Non-GMO vanillaMany of the processed foods that we see on grocery shelves today bear an ingredient label that says “artificially flavored.” Due to the prevalence of artificial additives in the marketplace, one of the questions we are asked most frequently from savvy shoppers is: “Why did I see the word artificial in the ingredients of a Non-GMO Project Verified product?”

Similar to how the word “modified” does not mean genetically modified when referring to modified corn starch or similar products, “artificial” does not inherently mean an ingredient is GMO. “Artificial flavor” is a term used by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to classify flavorings not found in nature or derived from natural elements (plants or animals). Artificial flavors are produced through synthesis in a lab to mimic the taste and chemical makeup of a natural counterpart. They are often used to cut costs for food producers. While this production process can be achieved without any genetic engineering—no GMOs required—some producers do choose to use GMOs.

It’s important to recognize that while artificial does not inherently classify ingredients as a GMO, some artificial ingredients do come from GMOs—especially GMO microorganisms. Those are the types of artificial ingredients that are addressed in the Non-GMO Project Standard. The best way to avoid GMOs when you shop is to look for Non-GMO Project Verified products.

What Makes A Flavor

Flavors are added to food primarily for their taste rather than nutritional value. Think of strawberry jam—while the strawberries in the jam are flavorful, they wouldn’t be considered a flavor in that product. However, in a product like strawberry gum or toothpaste, strawberry would be considered a flavor because it is present solely for taste.

In the US, flavors are regulated by the FDA, which enforces the Food Additives and Amendment Act of 1958. Under this law, the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of new food additives, including flavors, before they can be used in food products.

The FDA categorizes flavorings as either natural (e.g., vanilla bean extract, almond extract), artificial (e.g., synthesized vanillin, benzaldehyde), or spices (e.g., basil, cumin seed, or paprika). While artificial flavors are those not derived from natural elements, natural flavors are the processed and concentrated form of the plant or animal they came from. Spices are simply dried vegetables with no added flavoring. Ingredients traditionally regarded as foods, like onions, garlic, and celery, must be separately disclosed on a product’s ingredient list because they are not considered spices by the FDA.

Where We Come In

With thousands of flavoring substances in use today and varying methods used to produce them, it is impossible for consumers to tell if a product contains GMOs. That’s why the Non-GMO Project includes special provisions for evaluating microorganisms, including those used to produce artificial flavors, in our Standard. In many cases, this process goes all the way back to the growth medium the microorganism was grown on. Just like milk from a cow that's raised on GMOs can't be Non-GMO Project Verified, a microorganism can't eat GMOs and then produce Verified flavorings.

The next time you reach for that artificial vanilla flavor, Look for the Butterfly so you can be sure that product is non-GMO, right back to any microorganisms involved. Non-GMO Project Verified products are third-party tested and backed by our rigorous Standard to help take the guesswork out of shopping for you and your family.

Find Non-GMO Project Verified products

Zucchini, a delicious type of summer squash, is one of the lesser-known GMO risk crops. It is almost exclusively grown in the United States. There are only about 2,500 acres of GMO zucchini—that's ten small family farms worth. While there are well over 200 different varieties of GMO corn, there are only two known GMO squash events.

Despite its comparative lack of prevalence, GMO zucchini is widely commercially available in both Canada and the United States. This makes it a high-risk crop under the Non-GMO Project Standard, meaning zucchini and products containing zucchini are subject to particularly stringent requirements—including testing for GMO DNA—before they can become Non-GMO Project Verified.

Zucchini and Mosaic Viruses

While most GMOs are meant to tolerate an herbicide or produce an insecticide, GMO squash is meant to be resistant to certain types of viruses. Zucchini yellow mosaic virus is the most prevalent of these. This virus is transmitted primarily by aphids and causes infected plants to grow small, unhealthy fruit. It is closely related to the ringspot disease in papayas.

As it turns out, these genetic modifications do not do much to protect this summer squash from viruses. GMO zucchini only mitigates mosaic viruses; the plants still get infected and symptoms, albeit less severe symptoms, still appear. Additionally, zucchini remains vulnerable to several other types of viruses that GMOs offer no protection against. Once again, the world's largest chemical companies have failed to deliver on their promises to farmers.

It's not surprising that GMO zucchini is not in high demand. Farmers still need to use proper pest-management techniques in conjunction with their virus-resistant crops. This usually means deterring aphids by removing the weeds that host them and introducing natural predators such as ladybugs. It also means planting barrier crops that appeal to aphids. These techniques are just part of a healthy and biodiverse agricultural system to which GMOs are adding nothing but risk. We don't need GMOs to solve our food system challenges, but we do need effective farming practices! You can help support the farmers who work hard to grow non-GMO zucchini and summer squash by choosing Non-GMO Project Verified squash.

 

When we think of innovations in today’s supermarket, the mind easily jumps from farm to fridge blockchain tracking, to stores with a million cameras and no checkstands, or even to robots roaming grocery aisles. However, a smaller and much simpler piece of business technology has been pervasive in the marketplace for nearly three decades.

Price look-up codes (PLUs) are commonplace in nearly every major grocery store across North American and beyond. Since the first implementation of PLUs in 1990, various myths have circulated about how the lay shopper can read these labels to help inform their purchasing decisions. One such myth is that you can tell if a product is GMO by looking at its PLU. That’s simply not true. Unfortunately, in today’s confusing food labeling landscape, it’s hard to tell what’s in your food—and PLUs are not intended to help solve that problem.

That’s where we come in. The Non-GMO Project and thousands of participating brands, work hard to provide shoppers with meaningful non-GMO options, backed by our rigorous Standard. All you have to do is Look for the Butterfly.


Learn more about the facts behind PLUs:

What are PLUs?
Can I tell if a product is GMO or non-GMO from its PLU?
Can I tell if a product is organic from its PLU?
How are PLUs used?
Why are some foods labeled with PLUs while others are not?
Where did PLUs come from?
How are PLUs assigned and governed?
What about other PLU prefixes?


What are PLUs?

PLUs are four or five-digit numbers associated with bulk food items, often appearing on a small sticker applied to pieces of fresh produce or alongside the bins in a store’s bulk section of dried fruit and nuts, for example. PLU codes help grocery workers identify bulk foods based on various attributes including variety, size, and growing method (conventional vs. organic).

The standard four-digit PLU code is randomly assigned within a series of numbers. Five-digit PLUs are equivalent to their four-digit counterpart, with the addition of a prefix number to identify the method by which a product was grown.

No intelligence is built into any single digit of this code, but as a whole, it is used to identify bulk goods in a standardized format that makes grocer data universally comparable.

Can I tell if a product is GMO or non-GMO from its PLU?

No. The standard PLU code, designating a conventionally grown product, is four digits long. Though the IFPS once reserved prefix 8 to identify GMO foods, the prefix was stripped of this designation in July 2015 due to the unwillingness of GMO producers to use the number 8 prefix in a retail setting. IFPS maintains that it will recommission the 8 prefix in the future to accommodate a growing PLU database and assign universal PLUs to new varieties of bulk foods.

Shoppers who want to avoid GMOs can always look for the Non-GMO Project Verified mark to ensure the products they bring home are, in fact, non-GMO.

Can I tell if a product is organic from its PLU?

The standard PLU code, designating a conventionally grown product, is four digits long. The only prefix currently recognized by the IFPS for usage with PLUs is 9, which identifies an organically grown product. So, a product bearing a five-digit PLU code beginning in the number 9 would technically signify that product was organically grown.

If the PLU code for a conventionally grown yellow banana is 4011, an organically grown standard yellow banana would be 94011.

Before you go looking for the number 9, keep in mind that PLU codes are not implemented for shopper use. The IFPS recommends that consumers in search of organic products should always look for the USDA Organic seal on a product and/or consult their store’s produce or bulk section manager for more information.

How are PLUs used?

PLU codes are a simple, yet valuable business tool used in grocery stores to communicate universally recognizable electronic data around the sale of bulk goods. Common applications of PLU data in the marketplace are inventory control, accurate pricing at the register, and tracking of customer purchases. PLUs are not intended to convey information to shoppers.

Why are some foods labeled with PLUs while others are not?

PLU code usage is discretionary based on the grocer’s preference and on practicality. While stickers displaying PLUs are commonplace on fruits like bananas or apples, it’s hard to imagine individual nuts or green beans labeled in this manner. As an alternative to the traditional sticker display method, PLU codes are increasingly included on signage near products or otherwise affixed to them.

Where did PLUs come from?

PLUs were first implemented by grocery retailers in 1990 as a business tool to make check out and inventory control faster, easier, and more accurate.

How are PLUs assigned and governed?

PLUs are not regulated or required by any government, yet labeling bulk items with PLU codes is now commonplace in major grocery stores around the world. In their infancy, PLUs were primarily assigned by retailers and the information they conveyed was not universally agreed upon. In 2001, the International Federation for Produce Coding (IFPC) was founded by a coalition of fruit and vegetable associations with the goal of creating a global standard for the use of PLUs.

In 2006, the IFPC became known as the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS), which fulfills the same mission by assigning universal ​PLUs to bulk foods and maintaining a database of these items. According to the most recent available data from IFPS, 1,400 standardized PLU codes have been assigned to date.

A select range of PLUs are reserved by IFPS for retailer-assigned use. These are codes maintained in the IFPS’ database exclusively for retailers to use in association with the bulk products carried in their stores that have not been assigned a universal PLU code by the IFPS. Retailers are also welcome to submit applications for new PLU codes to be reviewed by IFPS.

What about other PLU prefixes?

Although PLUs starting with the prefix 6 have been spotted in retail settings, this prefix is not part of IFPS’ internationally recognized, standardized list of PLU codes and the organization does not comment on the use of this or any other unofficial prefix. IFPS recommends that shoppers contact the produce or bulk section manager at their local grocer using these prefixes for more information about their meaning.

Read more about PLU codes and standards from the International Federation for Retail Standards (IFRS)

On March 8, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lifted its ban on the import of the genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon created by AquaBounty Technologies. The FDA initially approved this GMO for human consumption in 2015, but Congress required the FDA to halt imports of the fish until appropriate GMO labeling guidelines could be established.

The FDA announced that this congressional mandate has been fulfilled through the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), which requires the labeling of some GMOs at the federal level. AquAdvantage salmon is explicitly included in the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods. Now that GMO salmon will be labeled in the US, the FDA has given the go-ahead to import, raise, and sell GMO salmon.

AquaBounty hopes to have its GMO salmon on the market as soon as 2020. Since compliance with the NBFDS does not become mandatory until 2022, it is unclear whether AquaBounty would choose to label its salmon in the interim. This means it is possible that GMO salmon could be sold in the US without a GMO disclosure for two years. The Non-GMO Project will continue to monitor this situation as it develops.

 

Wild, non-GMO Atlantic Salmon

GMO Salmon have made headlines before—check out our older blog for more details on the fishiest GMOs.

AquAdvantage Salmon to be Sold in the United States

On March 8, the American FDA lifted its ban on the import of the genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon created by AquaBounty Technologies. The FDA initially approved this GMO for human consumption in 2015, but Congress required the FDA to halt imports of the fish until appropriate GMO labeling guidelines could be established. The FDA announced that this congressional mandate has been fulfilled through the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which requires the labeling of (some) GMOs at the federal level. Now that GMO salmon will be labeled in the US, the FDA has given the go-ahead to import, raise, and sell GMO salmon.

Congress is not the only institution that found fault with the hasty approval of the world’s first genetically modified meat; environmental groups immediately took issue with the FDA’s decision as well. The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity, and multiple employees at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have all called AquaBounty’s product a threat to other salmon.

George Kimbrell at the Center for Food Safety called the FDA “dangerously out of touch with the facts on the ground,” and Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth said “It is increasingly clear that there is inadequate regulation: the FDA is trying to shoehorn this new genetically engineered animal into a completely ill-fitting regulatory process.” Their groups and several others sued the FDA over its hurried approval, which may have violated several laws including:

This litigation is ongoing. George Kimbrell and other stakeholders still believe their lawsuit could keep these GMO fish out of American stores if it is successful. “We think a remedy in our case would stop sale of the fish before they’re allowed to be sold,” he says.

Meanwhile, the AquAdvantage salmon has been quietly sold unlabeled in Canada since 2017. As of September 2018, AquaBounty reported that nearly 15 metric tons of the fish had been sold, but would not say to whom. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and other stakeholders are working to address multiple issues related to the labeling and marketing of this fish in Canada.

AquAdvantage Salmon

AquAdvantage salmon is a transgenic GMO that contains DNA from three different types of fish: Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, and the eel-like ocean pout. This results in a salmon that grows nearly twice as fast as other farmed Atlantic salmon while consuming about 25 percent less feed. Researchers do not yet know if these fish will have other, off-target effects as a result of their genetic manipulation.

Learn more

These living GMOs are bred to be sterile and always female in hopes of preventing them from mixing with wild populations. Unfortunately, it only takes one mishap for GMO contamination to occur. Once GMOs are released into the environment, there is no recalling them into the lab. Contamination events spanning decades and continents prove that no containment plan is foolproof. Some people are particularly concerned that AquaBounty is not being careful enough in Panama, where authorities ruled that AquaBounty had “repeatedly violated” certain environmental regulations.

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard

The FDA announced that since the USDA already set rules for GMO labeling by establishing the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, the congressional labeling requirement has been met. Many of the most prevalent GMOs will remain unlabeled under this fatally-flawed law because it contains so many omissions and loopholes. Despite these many shortcomings, AquAdvantage salmon and most products containing AquAdvantage salmon will require a “bioengineered food” disclosure under this law. This specific salmon is explicitly included in the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods.

Take the quiz: Which GMOs will be labeled and which will be hidden under the NBFDS?

The company has been farming conventional salmon in its Indiana facility while waiting for the FDA to lift the import ban. In the interim, it has been raising GMO fish in Panama, then exporting them to Canada for sale.

AquaBounty will now be permitted to import eggs to the Indiana-based farming facility it has held since June 2017. The company hopes to have its GMO salmon on the market as soon as 2020. Since compliance with the NBFDS does not become mandatory until 2022, it is unclear whether AquaBounty would choose to label its salmon in the interim. This means it is possible, but not certain, that GMO salmon could be sold in the US without a GMO disclosure for two years.


Consumers Reject GMO Meat

The hasty government approval of GMO salmon demonstrates once again that the FDA puts agribusiness first and consumers second. Despite this failure to create meaningful regulations, consumers and consumer groups are fighting back. Consumers don’t want GMO salmon--polls show only 35 percent of Americans would even try it. Nearly two million people sent the FDA comments asking them not to approve GMO salmon back in 2013, but the FDA did not listen. Luckily, many grocery retailers are listening. More than 80 retailers with a total of over 16,000 locations nationwide have promised not to sell genetically modified seafood.

 

Yes, There is Non-GMO Canola!

Our readers write to us almost every day to ask why they saw canola in a Non-GMO Project Verified product. There’s a fairly pervasive misconception that all canola is genetically modified, but this is not true! Non-GMO canola does exist; when you see canola in a product bearing the Butterfly, you can rest assured that it’s non-GMO canola because we test (major) high-risk crops that go into your food.

Canola’s story starts with the rapeseed plant, which is a member of the Brassicaceae family like cabbage, beets, mustard, and turnips. The name of this plant comes from rapum, the Latin word for turnip. While we think of this as a Canadian crop, rapeseed has been a traditional part of Asian cuisines for more than 4,000 years. It did not become widespread in Canada until it was used to make industrial engine lubricant during the Second World War.

In the 1970s, researchers at the University of Manitoba started working to alleviate two potential problems with rapeseed: erucic acid (which has been connected to heart problems) and glucosinolate (which just tastes bitter or pungent). By repeatedly crossing rapeseed plants that were lower and lower in these compounds, scientists used traditional breeding methods to create canola: a rapeseed variety that is very low in erucic acid and glucosinolate. The first canola variety emerged under the name Tower canola in 1974. To be clear, Tower canola was a non-GMO crop. GMOs had not been developed yet!

What’s the difference between hybrid crops and GMOs?

Remember, most GMOs are essentially living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through biotechnology, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Those traditional crossbreeding methods are exactly how canola was made, by breeding crops over generations without the use of genetic engineering. For about 20 years, all canola was non-GMO canola.

That changed in the mid-1990s when GMOs started to emerge. Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready canola variety became the first commercially available GMO canola in 1997. Like all herbicide-tolerant GMOs, it allows farmers to spray chemical herbicides (in this case, glyphosate) directly onto the plant without harming it. Today, nearly all of the canola grown in Canada and the United States has been genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant. Herbicide-resistant GMOs are made by the same chemical companies that sell these harmful chemicals. It’s no accident that just three of these chemical companies now control over 60 percent of the world’s entire seed supply.

Read more about patented seeds

These chemical companies still claim that herbicide-tolerant crops reduce chemical herbicide usage, but the USDA’s data shows the opposite is true. In fact, research shows a fifteen-fold increase in glyphosate use alone since the introduction of Roundup-Ready crops. Read this full study to learn more.  

Herbicide-tolerant GMOs have also been connected to the rise of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” Herbicides such as Roundup kill most weeds with each spraying, but the few that survive can pass their resistance on to the next generation of pests. This is becoming a serious problem across the continent—how many herbicide-resistant weeds are there in your state or province? This has, in fact, become such a problem that some farmers are now spraying more pesticides more often, including more potent formulations like Monsanto’s Enlist Duo. This herbicide is made with dicamba and 2,4D—one of the components of Agent Orange.

Read more about pesticide treadmills

Mutant Canola?

Some herbicide-tolerant canola (e.g., Clearfield canola) is the product of a genetic mutation rather than genetic engineering.

Mutations are not inherently bad, they are just changes in a heritable trait. For example, blue eyes started out as a mutation. Mutations occur naturally all the time; they are the basis of natural selection. There are also actions humans can take to force mutations to occur in plants. Crop scientists can use chemicals or radiation to induce random mutations in lots of plants, then pick out the plants with the most desirable traits to keep breeding. This process (sometimes called traditional mutagenesis) does not involve either in vitro nucleic acid techniques or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, so it is not biotechnology.

However, some processes that result in mutations do involve biotechnology. Oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), a type of site-directed mutagenesis or site-specific mutagenesis, is a new genetic engineering technique that uses in vitro methods to create specific mutations at specific points in a DNA sequence. The type of canola that is made with this technique is on the Non-GMO Project’s high-risk list; it is a GMO and it is not permitted in Non-GMO Project Verified products.

Canola is Everywhere in the Grocery Store

Canola is perfect for making processed oil because its seeds have upwards of 40 percent oil content. With most of its glucosinolate (which is what makes mustard and radishes taste so strong) bred out, it has a mild flavor that doesn’t overpower other ingredients. Canola oil is present in many store-bought foods. Once the oil has been extracted, the leftover parts are generally used in animal feed.

If you live in the United States, it’s important to be aware that products containing canola oil may not be labeled as GMOs under the new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. This law only requires the labeling of products that contain detectable GMO DNA. Canola oil is so refined that it does not always contain enough useable DNA to test it for GMOs. The Non-GMO Project solves this problem by tracing that oil back to its source and testing the canola itself. Remember, you can’t start with a GMO and process it into something that is not the product of biotechnology.

While most canola is genetically modified now, about ten percent of the canola grown in North America is still non-GMO. Show food producers you want more non-GMO canola by choosing Non-GMO Project Verified when you shop. Collectively, we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made.

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.

Disclosures

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:

Bioengineered disclosure labels

These symbols (and other types of disclaimers) will begin to appear on packages in 2020 to indicate the presence of GMOs in food.

These symbols say “bioengineered” but they do not explain what that means or how to find more information about it.

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.

Exemptions

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?

  1. Soup ingredients: chicken stock, corn, chicken, celery, carrots,
  2. Soup ingredients: chicken stock, chicken, corn, celery, carrots,
  3. Soup ingredients: vegetable broth (water, carrots, celery, paprika), chicken, corn, celery, carrots

Answer:  

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?

  1. Fish product ingredients: minced catfish, water, corn meal, corn flour, salt, baking powder, paprika, canola oil, flavoring
  2. Fish product ingredients: minced pollock, wheat flour, water, canola oil, egg, cornstarch, onion powder, flavoring
  3. Fish product ingredients: minced chicken, minced pollock, minced haddock, minced cod, enriched flour, canola oil, water, yellow corn flour, sugar, yeast, natural flavor

Answer:
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?

  1. Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, milkfat, soy lecithin, canola oil, vanillin, artificial flavor
  2. Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, cacao, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, emulsifier, artificial flavor
  3. Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, soy lecithin, natural vanilla

Answer:

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 info@nongmoproject.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.

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.

Can food producers use cookies or other tools to collect information about me when I use their digital or electronic links?

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.”

choosing non-GMO Project Verified products in the grocery store

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:

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.

Bioengineered disclosure labels

These symbols (and other types of disclosures) will begin to appear on packages in 2020 to indicate the presence of GMOs in food.


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 info@nongmoproject.org.

Read part two of this blog

The USDA issued its final rule for the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) today, to be published in the Federal Register on December 21, 2018. The Non-GMO Project is disappointed by the content of the final rule, which jeopardizes GMO transparency for Americans. The NBFDS demonstrates that only the Non-GMO Project provides the transparent labeling consumers have been demanding for more than 20 years.

In its current form, categorical exemptions prevent this law from delivering the meaningful protections Americans deserve. Highly processed ingredients, many products of new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR and TALEN, and many meat and dairy products will not require disclosure. Animal feed is not covered by this law; meat, eggs, and dairy from animals fed a GMO diet will not require a disclosure. Overall, many products containing GMOs will not be labeled, meaning that the absence of a bioengineered (BE) disclosure does not mean a product is non-GMO. In light of these developments, the Non-GMO Project will continue to listen to consumers and provide North America’s most rigorous label for GMO avoidance.

Despite these shortcomings, the law will permit voluntary non-GMO claims such as Non-GMO Project Verified. The final law explicitly states that Non-GMO Project participants are not expected to incur costs in association with this law according to a previously conducted regulatory impact analysis. This further suggests that Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program materials fulfill the necessary requirements to avoid disclosure.

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 every shopper make that right a reality. Based on the final rule released today, Non-GMO Project Verified will remain the most trustworthy and accessible way for consumers to avoid GMOs. The USDA’s final rule is not good enough and we believe consumers deserve better—the Non-GMO Project is committed to providing transparent labeling and meaningful non-GMO choices to all Americans.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS)?

The NBFDS is a federal rule published on December 21, 2018 that requires mandatory disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients in certain foods. The rule uses a very narrow definition of “bioengineered,” which exempts many ingredients that consumers widely consider to be GMOs. For example, under the rule, a cooking oil made from GMO canola is not considered “bioengineered,” and is therefore exempt from labeling, simply because the finished product isn’t testable.

How is the NBFDS perceived by the public?

Consumer groups have largely rejected the rule as insufficiently meaningful and transparent. Commonly cited concerns include the narrow definition of bioengineered food, the allowance of inaccessible disclosure methods (such as QR codes), and the use of opaque terminology. 

Are Non-GMO Project Verified Products automatically exempt from the NBFDS?
While Non-GMO Project Verified products are not automatically exempt, the Non-GMO Project is confident that Verified products will meet and exceed the requirements for compliance with the NBFDS. In its commentary on the final rule, Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) states that “USDA has tried to minimize the impact the NBFDS will have on...voluntary absence claims.”

Will the NBFDS generate expenses for my Non-GMO Project Verified products?

The final rule explicitly states that Non-GMO Project participants are not expected to incur costs in association with this law according to a previously conducted regulatory impact analysis. Thus, it appears that the rule has been drafted with the intention that documentation related to Non-GMO Project Product Verification will fulfill the necessary requirements to avoid disclosure. 

How do I tell if the NBFDS applies to my products?

Applicability rules are very complicated, especially for products that contain meat or eggs. Please review sections B and C under Applicability for full details. 

Will products of new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR or TALEN require a disclosure?

The NBFDS limits its definition of bioengineering to recombinant techniques that result in detectable modified material in the finished food. It appears unlikely that products of techniques like gene editing would be subject to disclosure under NBFDS, but the final rule is not explicitly clear.

Is there an exemption for my small food manufacturing business?

Very small food manufacturers, defined as those with annual receipts of less than $2.5 million, are exempt from the NBFDS. Such manufacturers may choose to make a voluntary disclosure if desired.

What is the penalty for failing to comply with the NBFDS?

The NBFDS does not provide for civil penalties such as fines. If a problem is discovered during an audit, regulated entities have the opportunity to have a hearing. The AMS can publish the results of an audit after such a hearing.

Will the Non-GMO Project help my brand demonstrate compliance to the AMS?

Individual brands will be responsible for submitting documentation to AMS if they are audited. It appears that the law has been drafted with the intention that documentation related to Non-GMO Project Product Verification materials will fulfill the necessary requirements to avoid disclosure. 

If one of my products has a BE disclosure and another is Non-GMO Project Verified, can I advertise them together? 

This is currently permitted as long as the Non-GMO Project Verified mark is only used in association with Verified products and/or the advertisement contains a disclaimer as to which product(s) are Non-GMO Project Verified. As a reminder, all marketing materials utilizing our trademarks must be sent to our marketing department for review and approval. If the advertisement needs to be altered in any way, our marketing team will let you know.

Can I write “Non-BE” or “Not bioengineered” on my Non-GMO Project Verified products?

No, this type of language is not permitted on Non-GMO Project Verified products or related marketing materials. The NBFDS states “the focus of the NBFDS is on BE claims and not on absence claims.” Non-GMO Project participants do not need to make claims using the AMS' confusing language because their Verified products already communicate a higher-level commitment to GMO transparency. The Non-GMO Project Verified mark means a product is compliant with North America’s most trusted and rigorous Standard for GMO avoidance—a significantly more meaningful designation than “non-BE” or similar.

When do my products need to be in compliance with the NBFDS?
Implementation begins January 1, 2020; some companies will choose to start using a BE disclosure at this time. Mandatory compliance takes effect on January 1, 2022. All applicable food products must bear a bioengineered disclosure by this date. 

Why should I remain in the Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program if the United States government is labeling bioengineered ingredients?

Non-GMO Project Verified remains the most technically rigorous and the most trusted label for GMO avoidance. The USDA’s law does not cover most refined ingredients, products of new genetic engineering techniques, meat products, pet food, animal feed, or personal care items. The consumers who care about true ingredient transparency will continue to look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. 

According to Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumer Reports, “The overwhelming majority of consumers want genetically engineered food to be clearly labeled, but this rule fails to give consumers the information they deserve. Consumers can, however, rely on labels such as ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ which will tell them if a food does not contain GMO ingredients.” 

We are grateful for your commitment to providing consumers with the highest quality third-party verification for non-GMO food and products. Together, we will keep working to provide consumers with a meaningful way to know what is in their food.

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