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Under a rule that went into effect on January 1, food in the U.S. must now state if it contains what are commonly called GMOs or genetically modified organisms – things which have been modified by scientists to grow in a way they would not in nature. Going forward, if a food has elements that meet a standard established by Congress in 2016, it must state that it is bioengineered or derived from bioengineering. Some are saying these new labels mark a win for transparency, but others claim they might actually confuse consumers even more.
The USDA’s National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard will cover food sold in the U.S. except for food at restaurants, “similar retail food establishments,” and very small producers. It also makes an exception for situations where the GMO ingredient is an “incidental additive” or where “the modified genetic material is not detectable,” and for several categories of animal products which have their own labeling regulations separate from the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.A list of some crops currently considered bioengineered can be found on the USDA website. A food product made using a GMO crops will now need to show some form of bioengineered label, either in the form of text, one of two official logos, a QR code with a link to additional information, or a code to send a text message for more information.
“The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard increases the transparency of our nation’s food system, establishing guidelines for regulated entities on when and how to disclose bioengineered ingredients,” then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a 2018 announcement of the new standard. “This ensures clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food. The standard also avoids a patchwork state-by-state system that could be confusing to consumers.”
Yet, some argue that the regulation might actually increase confusion. One advocacy group, the Center for Food Safety, has sued the USDA in an attempt to block the implementation of the new labelling rules which, the group argues, actually make it easier for corporations to hide what they’re putting in their products. The group takes exception with the use of ‘bioengineered’ rather than ‘GMO,’ objects to the way the regulations carve out those products where the ingredients are considered undetectable, because, they say, that means many common, refined products like soda and cooking oil will continue without labeling, and says the options for QR or text codes mean only people with smartphones will even have the option to learn about their food, and even then few will take the time to.
“Center for Food Safety (CFS) is currently waging a legal battle to rescind these final labeling regulations, issued by the Trump administration’s USDA,” reads a statement from the group. “The suit describes how the regulations leave the majority of GMO-derived foods unlabeled; discriminate against tens of millions of Americans by allowing the use of QR codes as a stand-alone for labeling products; prohibit the use of the widely-known terms “GMO” and “GE”; and prohibit retailers from providing more information to consumers.”
Elsewhere in the statement, CFS executive director Andrew Kimbrell refers to the rule – which, NPR reports, is backed by both the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association – as a “regulatory scam.”