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Have you seen a new label at the grocery store?

Bioengineered label

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:

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:

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.

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.”

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