What is Bioengineered Food?


On January 1, 2022, the federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law will take full effect. Under the BE labeling law, certain food products that are made with GMOs will require a disclosure of bioengineered ingredients. 

The BE labeling law, known formally as the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard or NBFDS, was introduced in 2016 as a federal response to state-level GMO labeling campaigns. However, this law is not nearly as comprehensive as either the state laws it is meant to replace nor the Non-GMO Project Standard. With a comparatively limited scope, categorical exemptions and inconsistent labeling requirements, the BE labeling law is insufficient to protect a consumer’s right to know what’s in their food.

 

What is bioengineered food?

Bioengineered, or “BE” for short, is the federal government’s new term for GMOs. Under the Bioengineered Food labeling law, certain BE foods containing detectable modified genetic material must disclose the presence of BE ingredients.

The clause “detectible modified genetic material” is crucial because it excuses many products that are made with GMOs from making the disclosure. Many products made with new GMO techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN and RNAi are currently untestable. Without a commercially available test, the modified genetic material is undetectable and thus those foods wouldn’t require a BE label. 

Additionally, many processed foods contain highly refined ingredients made from GMOs. The processing often leaves no detectable modified genetic material behind in the final product, and therefore those products also will not require labels. Common household products that contain ingredients such as sugar made from GMO sugar beets or cooking oil made from GMO canola would fall into this category.


Which bioengineered foods will be labeled — and which won’t?

Certain food containing detectable modified genetic material will require a Bioengineered (BE) Food  disclosure. The USDA’s current List of Bioengineered Foods includes:

  • Alfalfa
  • Arctic™ Apple 
  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Cotton
  • Bt Eggplant
  • Ringspot virus-resistant Papaya
  • Pink Pineapple
  • Potato
  • AquAdvantage® Salmon
  • Soybean
  • Summer squash
  • Sugarbeet

This list determines which foods are considered bioengineered in their most basic, raw form. However, the way the BE law is written — with exemptions, loopholes and technical limitations — many products made from these bioengineered ingredients will not require a disclosure.

  • Animal feed, pet food and personal care products are all exempt from the BE labeling law.
  • Some foods for direct human consumption are also exempt, such as meat, poultry and eggs.
  • Multi-ingredient products in which meat, poultry or eggs are the first ingredient listed are exempt even if other ingredients with detectable modified genetic material are included in the product. 

The USDA explained how this rule might impact labeling, using a can of pork stew as an example. A multi-ingredient canned stew might contain bioengineered ingredients such as sweet corn. If pork is the predominant ingredient listed first on the ingredient panel, the product would not be subject to the BE labeling law. If the stew lists water, broth or stock as the first ingredient and pork appears second on the ingredient panel, the product would not require a BE label — even if the third ingredient was GMO corn (that’s because water, stock and broth are overlooked). However, if the stew contains more corn than pork, the ingredient panel will list corn first and a disclosure would be necessary. 

The average shopper would be bewildered at this level of complexity. The USDA’s example demonstrates the confusion built into the BE labeling law. A multi-ingredient product may or may not be labeled “Containing Bioengineered Food Ingredients” not based on the presence of bioengineered ingredients but on the order in which the ingredients are listed. 

The BE labeling law was written in response to a series of state-level labeling initiatives for GMO labeling, after 20 years of widespread consumer demand for increased transparency in the food system. 

Yet, when this level of detailed knowledge about the regulation is necessary for the average shopper to assess whether the product they are about to buy might contain bioengineered ingredients, the regulation does not fulfill its purpose.

 

Are Bioengineered Foods the same as GMOs?

Bioengineered is supposed to mean GMO, but it uses a much more narrow definition than consumers expect from other certifications. Per the USDA’s definition, bioengineered foods must contain modified genetic material which leaves out many products made with GMOs.

GMOs are used in up to 80% of conventional processed foods in the United States. Through advocacy and education, the Non-GMO Project and partner organizations have raised public awareness about GMOs in the food supply. A 2020 survey* from the Hartman Group showed that 97% of consumers were familiar with the term “GMO,” compared with only 50% who reported familiarity with “bioengineering” — indicating a massive pool of people who do not know what a Bioengineered (BE) Food disclosure even means.

Selecting the term “bioengineered” instead of the commonly used “GMO” prevents transparency in the food system. Words matter. Clarity, consistency and comprehension are essential tools in imparting information to the public.

For example, the definition of bioengineered food relies on precise language: including a requirement that BE food must contain modified genetic material and that the modification is not otherwise obtainable through traditional crossbreeding or found in nature. Meanwhile, the biotechnology industry is developing new GMOs created with emerging techniques — and they’re often arguing that those techniques achieve the same results as traditional crossbreeding, only faster. Yet, this argument is both reductive and misleading — and it is deeply troubling when applied to the definition of bioengineered foods. 

That’s because gene functions and evolutionary changes are incredibly complex, based on intricate connections that are not fully understood. To claim that a genetic modification engineered in a lab produces an identical result as an evolutionary process found in nature or in traditional breeding (minus the time) is wildly presumptuous. There is a much bigger picture that is invisible to us. 

“Whether a GMO is created by combining genes from multiple species or by rearranging or silencing genes within a species, the fundamental premise remains the same — the flawed idea that genes can be reduced to isolated functions, without regard for the complex interplay of the entire genome.”

“Whether a GMO is created by combining genes from multiple species or by rearranging or silencing genes within a species, the fundamental premise remains the same — the flawed idea that genes can be reduced to isolated functions, without regard for the complex interplay of the entire genome.”
Megan Westgate, Executive Director

Nothing in nature exists in a vacuum, and it is unnatural to assume that it would. 

The biotech industry argues that genetic engineering can be used to create “nature-identical,” non-GMO products. This false claim supports the development of new GMOs in the food supply while side-stepping the current definition of bioengineering and avoiding BE disclosure. Without transparent and reliable GMO labeling, Americans are kept in the dark about what goes into their food.  


What will the bioengineered food label look like on packaging?

The USDA has provided several options for what the Bioengineered (BE) Food disclosure can look like on packaging. It’s up to the companies to decide which they’d like to use.

This is a disservice to shoppers. Consistency is essential to the success of any information campaign. Consistency with language, and consistency with labels. The visual component of the BE labeling law is just as important as the words. What will BE food labels look like across products?

There are several options, including:

  • BE Symbol — The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service developed these new symbols for the BE labeling law.
  • Text disclosure — The product package can display a simple text disclosure such as “Bioengineered food” or “Contains a bioengineered food ingredient.” This option relies on the unfamiliar term “bioengineered” and doesn’t explain what bioengineered means or where the consumer could find more information, which may be confusing.
  • Text message or contact phone number — Brands may opt to display the phrase, “Text [number] for bioengineered food information” on the package, or “Call [phone number] for more food information,” with a pre-recorded message.
  • QR code or other scannable code — Brands may provide the code along with the text, “Scan here for more food information.” However, disclosures that rely exclusively on digital devices can be discriminatory, creating barriers to information based on geography, income or age.
  • URL — Very small manufacturers are permitted to direct consumers to a website for information. 

At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that a label must be transparent and intuitively understood by the average shopper in order to be equitable and instructive. By opting for unfamiliar language and inconsistent labeling requirements, the BE labeling law is neither.


Look for the Butterfly to keep GMOs out of your shopping cart — and out of agriculture

The majority of consumers concerned about GMOs seek to avoid them, not find products that contain them. The Bioengineered Food labeling law is ineffective at finding GMOs and avoiding GMOs, largely because of restrictions, loopholes and exemptions. Too much falls outside of the law’s purview for it to be effective. That’s why the Butterfly remains the most rigorous, transparent and trustworthy label for GMO avoidance.

The Butterfly does more than keep GMOs out of your shopping cart. The Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program (PVP) also works to preserve and build our non-GMO food supply. The PVP applies pressure at the most significant points in our food supply by looking back through the supply chain to evaluate raw ingredients and animal feed. GMOs grow on more than 200 million acres of agricultural land in the U.S. — most of those crops end up in animal feed. By evaluating our food and our food’s food, the PVP substantially supports a non-GMO food supply. Planting vast areas with just a few crops erodes biodiversity, while the chemical pesticides that go hand in hand with GMOs damage soil health. Agriculture that relies on GMOs is a losing proposition.

Disclosing whether the products we buy for our families contain “detectable modified genetic material” is simply not enough to preserve environmental health and ecological harmony for future generations. At the Non-GMO Project, we agree with the 65% of consumers who believe GMO labeling should be mandatory. We also believe that labeling should be meaningful, consistent, and transparent — effectively supporting everyone’s right to know what goes into their food.

*Source: Organic and Beyond 2020 GMO Special Report; The Hartman Group, Inc.