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It's been a big year for the biotech industry. You may have noticed the wealth of headlines reporting breakthroughs in gene editing and other new GMO techniques, news stories littered with acronyms like CRISPR, TALEN and RNAi. These are just some of the new techniques being used to create novel products in our food supply — some of which are even being marketed as "non-GMO"!

But you won't see the Butterfly on these products.

At the Non-GMO Project, we recognize that any process in which an organism’s genetic material is engineered in a laboratory is genetic engineering. The products of emerging techniques — including CRISPR, TALEN, RNAi and gene drives — are GMOs. The Non-GMO Project Standard adheres to the definition of GMOs laid out by the Codex Alimentarius, the internationally recognized set of standards addressing food issues, from production to labeling and everything in between.

Because the new federal bioengineered food labeling law does not recognize many products of emerging genetic engineering techniques as GMOs, tracking new techniques and their impact on the food supply is more important than ever. Rest assured, the products of gene editing are excluded from the Non-GMO Project Standard, and packaged goods that rely on gene-edited ingredients are not eligible to wear the Butterfly seal.

A GMO-producing trio: TALEN, CRISPR and RNAi

TALEN

In 2019, a GMO soybean became the first gene edited crop commercially available in the United States. The soybeans were engineered using a technique called TALEN, resulting in more oleic acid and fewer trans-fats. These soybeans do not require disclosure under the new bioengineered food labeling law, and oil or meal derived from the GMO soybeans could end up entering the food supply marketed as a "non-GMO product." 

TALEN has also been used to modify alfalfa for animal feed, and even to modify the animals themselves. One infamous case of TALEN-gone-wrong can be found in the GMO cattle engineered to be hornless. The hornless bull was initially hailed as a success, but was later found to contain non-bovine DNA that could increase antibiotic resistance. This extra genetic information was picked up in the lab during the genetic engineering process. Critically, the company responsible for the creation of the GMO cattle did not find this error — it was detected purely by chance by an FDA researcher running tests on software. 

CRISPR

Another gene-editing tool used to create GMO livestock is CRISPR. Of all the emerging acronyms, this is likely the most familiar, as CRISPR has generated a lot of press — and controversy. Its creators won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery, while a scientist in China "shocked the world" with the use of CRISPR to edit human embryos. 

There are many projects involving CRISPR in development, including some varieties of genetically modified livestock. Researchers are working to create animals that offer producers higher profit margins or can better withstand the harsh conditions of factory farming. Genetically modified animals include such creations as "double-muscled" pigs and poultry with enhanced immune systems

CRISPR is often described to layfolk as "operating like a pair of scissors." Or, in a much grander vision for the future, the Nobel Prize press release described CRISPR as "a tool for rewriting the code of life" — a jaw-dropping example of hubris considering how much we don't know about the function of genetic material

Whether it's kitchen chemistry or re-creating the world, the overall message is, "We've got this."

In truth, we very much don't have this. The gene-editing process can impact sections of DNA that weren't intended, creating so-called "off target effects." There are also the unforeseen consequences resulting from our limited knowledge of the complex and interrelated functions of genes.

One recent CRISPR story involves a bull named Cosmo, engineered to produce more male offspring — a beneficial trait in the beef industry. In the case of Cosmo, the Baker City Herald reported as much:

"A close look at Cosmo’s DNA after birth revealed Crispr’s unpredictability. Researchers said there was a piece of genetic code that didn’t belong, and Cosmo had more SRY, the gene that causes male traits, than intended." 

The Baker City Herald continues with a description of odd side effects in other CRISPR animals: “pigs with extra vertebrae, cattle that die prematurely, rabbits with huge tongues.”

This "rewrite" of the code of life is clearly not ready for publication.

RNAi

Short for RNA Interference, this new GMO technique uses RNA molecules to interfere with the expression of certain genes in order to modify an organism's attributes. For example, RNAi was used in the creation of the Arctic Apple to interfere with the apple's natural tendency to turn brown when it's cut open. 

Additional products of RNAi currently on the market include some varieties of Simplot Innate potatoes, engineered to reduce the appearance of bruising. The trouble with inhibiting a gene to hide damage is that the damage is still there, weakening tissues and providing an entrypoint for pathogens. It's only the visual indicators that have been eliminated. At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that's important information and we're better off recognizing it for what it is. 

Learn more about GMO potatoes

Syn(bio) City — GMO dairy, breast milk and "meat juices"

Short for synthetic biology, “synbio”refers to the merging of biology and engineering. Currently, the term largely refers to the genetic engineering of microorganisms such as yeast and is often used to produce flavorings or dairy proteins. 

Synbio dairy proteins are a hot item in the frozen foods aisle, providing the key ingredient to several GMO frozen dairy desserts, including Brave Robot, Smitten N’Ice Cream, Nick's and Graeter’s Perfect Indulgence. These brands all get their "dairy-identical" synbio dairy proteins from a single source: Perfect Day, who brought their own limited release ice cream to market for $20/pint a few years back. One of the co-founders at Perfect Day, Ryan Pandya, described their marketing strategy in enigmatic terms: "We want people to know it’s plant-based but not from plants, it’s an animal product but without animals." Which leaves one to wonder: What is it, then? Well, it's GMO. 

These dairy-without-the-animals desserts put a lot of weight on their non-animal status, appealing to the vegan market. But here we hit a snag: Producing the non-animal dairy protein relies on a digitized copy of a cow gene. While that information is part of an open source database, the genetic material originally came from an animal. According to Perfect Day, it came from a cow named L1 Dominette 01449. Depending on how strictly one defines and practices veganism, the origin of the genetic material becomes vitally important. A product that originated with blood drawn from a cow may not satisfy some vegans.

Other synbio products include human collagen for the skin care market, as well as "heme," a synbio compound that is used to create meat-like juices in the Impossible Burger. The Impossible Burger is also a tricky proposition for vegans: While the heme is derived from GMO soybeans, Impossible Foods conducted animal testing during its development. 

Developers are also using new techniques to synthesize proteins found in human breast milk, with a potential use in GMO infant formula.

The Butterfly is more important than ever!

With novel products made with new GMO techniques entering the market, it's more important than ever to look for the Butterfly. Many of these products won't require a "bioengineered food" disclosure under the new BE labeling law — a law which focuses on foods with detectable modified genetic material in the final product. 

Learn more about the bioengineered (BE) labeling law

The biotech industry knows all too well that the majority of Americans want GMOs to be clearly labeled. So, as they bring new products to market, they are bending over backwards to distance themselves from the simplest and most powerful acronym of all: G-M-O.

At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that everyone has the right to know what's in their food. That is only more critical in light of emerging technologies and new techniques, creating organisms that humans haven't eaten before. 

 

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.

Atlantic salmonThe first batch of genetically modified salmon raised in a U.S. facility has been sold from AquaBounty's facility in Albany, Ind. The GMO salmon were modified with DNA from both a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout to grow nearly twice as fast as non-GMO Atlantic salmon while consuming less feed. 

Will GMO salmon be labeled?

The Non-GMO Project supports clear and transparent labeling of products made with or containing GMOs. AquaAdvantage salmon is listed as a “bioengineered food” under federal BE food labeling law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS). Because of this, AquAdvantage salmon sold by retailers must include a mandatory “Bioengineered Food” disclosure starting January 1, 2022. However, the GMO labeling scheme is not short on loopholes: 

Without standardized and accessible labeling — not to mention the confusing attempt to rebrand GMOs as "bioengineered foods" — shoppers continue to rely on the Butterfly to exercise their right to choose non-GMO. 

Big names in food industry boycott GMO salmon

Consumers won't find AquAdvantage salmon at some of the biggest retail chains in the country, as 80 companies with more than 18,000 locations have pledged to not carry the GMO fish. The list includes grocery chains, restaurants, seafood companies and food service providers including Costco, who find the product incompatible with their sustainability policies. Hy-Vee issued a statement on their reasons for not carrying AquAdvantage: "In order to protect marine resources and ensure future seafood supplies, Hy-Vee strongly believes that genetically engineered seafood has no place in its stores." 

Other companies that have publicly committed not to carry the GMO salmon include Kroger, Meijer, Target, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi, Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexo. For a detailed list of companies that are opting out of GMO salmon, visit Friends of the Earth's webpage.

FDA failed in environmental assessment of GMO salmon

A coalition of environmental groups have fought against the approval of genetically modified salmon for years, citing the risks it poses to native salmon populations. Critics of the GMO fish include The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity as well as several employees at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. On November 5, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the FDA violated environmental laws with its hasty approval of GMO salmon. The ruling calls out the FDA's failure to adequately assess the impact escaped GMO salmon could have on wild populations, stating, "The FDA knew that the company’s salmon operations would likely grow, with additional facilities being used for farming. Obviously, as the company’s operations grow, so too does the risk of engineered salmon escaping."

Salmon hold a place of particular importance to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest  who lived and fished sustainably for centuries before the arrival of colonizers in the 19th century. In the words of Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians and of the Quinault Indian Nation, 

"Salmon are at the center of our cultural and spiritual identity, diet, and way of life. It's unconscionable and arrogant to think man can improve upon our Creator's perfection as a justification for corporate ambition and greed."

While the FDA must now complete adequate assessments on the environmental risks of genetically engineered salmon, the ruling doesn't impact the current sales of AquAdvantage. 

Find out more! Read Hidden GMOs in the Seafood Aisle

 



As we welcome the roaring 20s, let’s revisit the major GMO-related happenings of the past year. 2019 rode in on the back of the National Bioengineering Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), a piece of regulation born to confuse, confound and mystify. At the Non-GMO Project, we worked hard this year to provide the transparency and reliability the NBFDS lacks, releasing v.15 of our Standard (you can read the Standard here anytime). Now let’s review the action that occurred outside the building. 

Plant-Based Meat (What’s in a Name?)

This was the year of plant-based meat alternatives. Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger led the pack, with Impossible bringing the GMO blood and no small amount of drama. From reformulating their product to include an additional source of GMOs, to its controversial promotion at the world’s largest natural foods trade show, to picking a fight with the regenerative agriculture movement, Impossible Foods came out swinging.

The market-wide influence of plant-based meat alternatives provoked action at the state level to restrict the use of terms such as meat, burger, or steaks to products harvested from a slaughtered animal. Imagine what the plant-based landscape would look like today if the first veggie burgers of the 80s had faced the epically unappetizing moniker “veggie discs”?

Read more about meat and meat alternatives

Monsanto v. the Masses

Monsanto/Bayer is facing thousands of lawsuits over their most popular weedkiller, Roundup, as consumers who used the product face devastating illness. At the Non-GMO Project, we have a bee in our bonnet over Roundup, as the majority of GMO crops were explicitly developed for tolerance to this herbicide (“Roundup Ready”), leading to a 15-fold increase in its use. In 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup — was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” So far, juries have overwhelmingly favored the plaintiffs, while the EPA overturned California’s efforts to require warning labels on Roundup. The year ended with the arrest of Timothy Litzenburg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs suing Monsanto, who allegedly offered to “take a dive” during depositions if the agro-chemical giant paid him millions in consulting fees.

Achievements in Unintended Consequences

New genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR and TALEN — used to create GMOs — are described by the National Institute of Health as “effective and reliable.” These GMO animals of 2019, not so much:

Swimming to America

The FDA authorized the farming of GMO AquAdvantage salmon. These fast-growing frankenfish are raised in pens in Indiana and Prince Edward Island. A coalition of advocacy groups including the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have raised serious concerns about the threat the AquAdvantage fish would pose to native salmon populations should there be an escape from the facilities. Contamination events can and do occur, and AquaBounty — the company responsible for the GMO salmon — raised the risk level considerably by producing both GMO and non-GMO salmon eggs at their Prince Edward Island facility. 

Here Comes the Grain Again

A rogue field of unapproved GMO wheat sprang up in Washington State this year. This was not the first time GMO wheat made an unexpected appearance: similar surprise visits occurred in Oregon in 2013, Montana in 2014, Washington in 2016, and Alberta, Canada in 2018. The interlopers are different varieties of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat, and demonstrate impressive migratory abilities, moving from test plots in California to contamination in Alberta, Canada without so much as a passport.

News From the Hill

We were underwhelmed by the National Bioengineering Food Disclosure Standard when it dropped like a lump of coal into our laps last December. We bucked up, wrote some educational materials to help consumers, retailers and brands figure out what it meant for them, and hoped for better things in 2019. Here’s how that turned out:

The Rise of the Butterfly

Before abandoning all hope, we may take solace in the fact that our work and the support of shoppers, retailers and brands are shifting public discourse. In one of our favorite moments from 2019, freelance writer and GMO advocate Kavin Senapathy broke ranks with Monsanto. You’re welcome to join us for our New Year’s party, Kavin!

 

by Melissa Waddell, Assistant Copywriter and Editor, Non-GMO Project

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.

 

From CRISPR Babies to Regulatory Loopholes: The New GMO Landscape
Thursday, March 7 from 4:00-5:30 PM
Marriott Platinum Ballroom 3


Join us for a conversation about the state of the non-GMO landscape, including:

Featuring:

Moderated by:
Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director, Center for Food Safety

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

Background

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) is the culmination of two decades of Americans overwhelmingly demanding mandatory labeling of GMO foods. The draft version published by the USDA on May 3 leaves many questions unanswered and indicates plenty of cause for alarm. The USDA is currently accepting comments through July 3. In order to support you in making your voice heard, the Non-GMO Project has created a short webinar explaining key points for comments, and has drafted a customizable template for comment submission to the USDA.

Watch the 35-minute webinar with Non-GMO Project Executive Director Megan Westgate which provides background on the proposed USDA standard, implications of the draft rule, and context for the proposed comments:



Here’s what’s at risk if we don’t comment; the final rule might:

Take Action Now

Step 1. Download a template letter suggesting comments to the USDA

Option A. Paste the template letter onto your letterhead. Add a short statement about your company and a signature. If you want to change or add to the comments, though, please do so!

Option B (preferred). Letters that integrate the direct impacts of the proposed rule on your business are much more effective. After pasting the template content on your letterhead, please add personal statements to each comment providing context for how this element of the proposed USDA standard impacts your business or customers.

Resources for commenting:

Step. 2 Upload your letter

Your comments must be submitted by 11:59 EST on July 3, 2018 via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. There is a character limit on comments written or pasted directly into the comment text field; rather than pasting your comments, we suggest directing the USDA to your attached letter, with a simple statement such as “Please see attached letter.” You are also encouraged to submit supplemental evidence supporting your comments.

The Rigor of the Non-GMO Project is More Important than Ever

We appreciate your attention to this critical matter. While the Non-GMO Project will continue to lead efforts to ensure that this law is as meaningful as possible, it’s clear based on what was released that Non-GMO Project Verified will remain the most trustworthy and accessible way for consumers to avoid GMOs.

Please do not hesitate to contact the Non-GMO Project if you have any questions. Thank you!

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