Have you seen a new label at the grocery store?
The new federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law went into effect on January 1, 2022. Under the law, BE disclosures are now mandatory on certain products made with GMOs. However, due to exemptions and a limited definition of a "bioengineered food," many products made with GMOs will not require disclosures.
How well does this law ultimately work for shoppers? Does it provide meaningful and consistent labeling of products made with biotechnology? Most importantly, what's the best way for you to keep GMOs out of your shopping cart?
We're here with the practical advice you need to navigate a new food label — plus an update on the BE law's ongoing challenges.
New BE label leaves shoppers in the dark
Most people are familiar with terms like "genetically modified organism" and "genetic engineering." Natural foods advocates (including staff at the Non-GMO Project) have been working for decades to raise awareness of GMOs in the food system.
The term "bioengineered," on the other hand, is new and enigmatic — and not in a good way.
Compared with the Non-GMO Project Standard's definition of GMO, "bioengineered" is a narrow and exclusive term. The difference between the two excludes many products that are made with GMOs from requiring a BE label.
Some of the products that fall into the gap include:
- Products made through new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR — These "new GMOs" made with emerging techniques are entering the market at an alarming rate.
- Highly refined products — The BE labeling law only applies to products with detectable modified genetic material. That means highly refined products such as canola oil made from genetically modified canola or sugar made from genetically modified sugar beets would not require a BE label because detectable modified DNA was removed during processing.
- Animal-derived products — Under the new law, meat, dairy and eggs are all exempt from BE disclosure. This is important because GMO commodity crops such as corn and soy are mainly used as livestock feed. Looking for Verified animal-derived products is one of the best ways to impact the GMO supply chain!
- Certain multi-ingredient prepared foods — Some prepared foods are exempt from BE disclosures even if they contain bioengineered ingredients — it depends on their order of appearance on the ingredient panel. Take our quiz to find out which GMOs will be labeled!
The absence of a BE disclosure does not mean a product is non-GMO. Ultimately, the labeling scheme leaves out many products shoppers seek to avoid.
The many faces of BE disclosure
Exemptions and loopholes aside, what will that label look like on products that must disclose bioengineered ingredients? Brands and manufacturers have a range of options to choose from.
A BE disclosure may appear as:
- A symbol
- A text disclosure
- A phone number or text message
Inconsistent labeling is confusing to shoppers, and digital disclosures 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.