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Woman grocery shoppingSince its inception in 2007, the Non-GMO Project has advocated for meaningful, mandatory labeling of GMOs. And we are not alone: *65% of Americans believe GMOs should be labeled. So when the incoming federal labeling law for bioengineered (BE) foods was released, we hoped it would meet the public's desire for transparency. 

We were disappointed. The BE labeling law, as written and passed in 2016, overlooks many products made from GMOs, making it insufficient. Meanwhile, labeling guidelines do not provide clear information to consumers about the food they are serving to their families.

Here’s what you can expect as this law becomes mandatory on January 1, 2022.

"Bioengineered" means GMO — just not all GMOs

The Non-GMO Project's definition of GMOs includes all the products of genetic modification covered by the BE labeling law. But the Butterfly doesn't stop there. As the technology that drives genetic modification continues to evolve, the products of new GMO techniques like gene editing are entering the supply chain. 

The Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program keeps the products of new GMO techniques from being Verified. At the same time, our research team tracks developments in biotechnology to stay ahead of impacts on the food system. 

By adopting the term "bioengineering," this law selects language that's unfamiliar to most shoppers. People know about GMOs. Most people do not know much about bioengineered food. The term causes consternation and the furrowing of brows. 

For the BE food labeling law to truly serve consumer needs, it must be clear, transparent and able to keep pace with the technology it is meant to identify. 

BE labeling options could cause confusion

Bioengineered disclosure labelsThe BE labeling law allows several options for how the Bioengineered disclosure appears on packaging. Brands might display the BE symbol or include a line of text. They might opt for a digital code or a contact phone number that would provide the inquisitive shopper with more information. These options offer flexibility to the manufacturer, but they also make information less accessible to people in stores. Electronic disclosures exclude people who face barriers to technological access, such as residents of rural areas or people who come from a low-income background. Anyone who isn't comfortable with pocket-sized tech or who is shopping with small children could also be impacted.    

With each step away from clear and equally accessible labeling, the average shopper gets less information, compromising the very purpose of an effective labeling program.

Want to keep GMOs out of your shopping cart? Look for the Butterfly 

What gets left out of the BE labeling law is just as important as what's included. For the *40% of shoppers looking to avoid GMOs, a "bioengineered" disclosure isn't enough.

Which GMOs are overlooked under the BE labeling law?

There are also complexities in the new law that prevent GMOs in multi-ingredient products from being disclosed. For example, a canned soup containing GMO corn would not require disclosure if the formulation lists meat as the first ingredient. Under the BE labeling law, it doesn't matter that the corn is prevalent and plainly visible in the product or that 92% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. It doesn't even matter that the corn might have detectable modified genetic material. With meat as the first ingredient, the product is not subject to disclosure. Even if water, broth or stock is the first ingredient and meat is the second, the loophole still applies because those kinds of liquids don't count. 

Test your ability to predict where the BE label will show up with this quiz!

With so much remaining outside the scope of the BE labeling law, looking for a "bioengineered food" label may not be  effective at keeping GMOs out of your shopping cart. These undisclosed genetically modified ingredients still contribute to GMO agriculture and acreage and the destructive, chemical-dependent practices that go with it.

At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that everyone has the right to know what's in their food and to choose whether to consume GMOs. We welcome and encourage meaningful labeling of GMOs. The effectiveness of any labeling program relies on transparency, so the average person can understand quickly and easily what is being disclosed. 

Until the BE labeling law meets that criteria, looking for the Butterfly remains your best option to avoid GMOs.


*Source: Organic & Beyond © 2020, The Hartman Group, Inc.

On May 18th, Whole Foods Market announced an update to its GMO Labeling Policy. Specifically, in light of the USDA’s recently released draft rule on a National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, Whole Foods has paused its September 1, 2018 compliance deadline while remaining firm on its commitment to verification of non-GMO claims.

The scope of the retailer’s original policy, announced in March 2013, was a requirement for suppliers of food products to label products that contain genetically modified (GMO) risk ingredients. In a letter from senior executives last Friday, including WFM president and chief operating officer AC Gallo, the company said: As the USDA finalizes the federal regulation in the coming months and the food industry assesses the impact, we do not want our Policy to pose further challenges for you and your business.

Given that the USDA standard focuses on GMO disclosure of products that contain GMOs, it is logical for Whole Foods to slow its process to ensure alignment between its requirements and federal law. That said, another aspect of the retailer’s GMO transparency commitment is a policy around non-GMO claims for products intentionally produced without GMOs. This includes a requirement for non-GMO claims to be verified by an approved third party like the Non-GMO Project. In the May 18th communication, Whole Foods emphasized its continued commitment to this part of the policy. Although the deadline has been paused, the non-GMO claims policy remains in effect and Whole Foods will not promote or advertise a product as non-GMO unless it has been third-party verified.

Suppliers that have questions about this update should reach out to their primary contact at Whole Foods.

As the regulatory and policy landscape continues to evolve, consumer demand for non-GMO products is stronger than ever. Products that have earned Non-GMO Project Verified status have met the most rigorous standards in the world for GMO avoidance and are well-positioned regardless of the outcome of the final USDA rule. Non-GMO Project verification is still the best way to access market demand for non-GMO, as well as to comply with any likely regulations and retailer policies.

Brands with questions about Non-GMO Project Verification should contact our Client Experience team.

Retailers with questions about non-GMO policy should contact our Outreach team.

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