Foods that previously were labeled as containing “genetically engineered” (GE) ingredients or “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) will now be labeled as “bioengineered,” or come with a phone number or QR code guiding consumers to more information online.
The changes are part of the USDA’s new rules on controversial modified crops and ingredients. Previous labeling requirements were governed differently on a state-by-state basis. By providing a uniform, national standard for labeling bioengineered foods, “it avoids a patchwork of state labeling regulations,” a USDA spokeswoman said in a statement.
The move is universally confounding food safety advocate groups. Eating bioengineered foods poses no risk to human health, according to the National Academy of Sciences and the Food and Drug Administration. However, watchdog organizations say the new rules contain too many loopholes for consumers who want to avoid these foods.
“The worst part of this law is the use of the term ‘bioengineered’ because that’s not a term most consumers are familiar with,” said Gregory Jaffe, director of the project on biotechnology for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. He said this choice was in large measure because “GMO” had come to be perceived as pejorative.
Other advocacy groups such as the Center for Food Safety say the rules don’t go far enough and will leave the majority of genetically modified foods unlabeled. And the new rules discriminate against the more than 100 million Americans who do not have access to smartphones or cell service, because companies will be allowed to rely on smartphone-based scannable QR codes to share information with consumers.
The new rule requires food manufacturers, importers and retailers to disclose information whether foods are bioengineered or use bioengineered ingredients, doing away with well-established terms like “genetically engineered” and “GMO” on labels. However, other kinds of official certifications like USDA Organic and NON-GMO Project Verified will be allowed.
Manufacturers of dietary supplements must also comply, but restaurants and other food service establishments do not have to abide by the new rules.
Food companies say the timing is terrible. Instituting this change in the middle of a pandemic and supply-chain crisis puts an undue burden on an industry already reeling, according to trade groups for food companies and manufacturers. Betsy Booren, a senior vice president for the trade group Consumer Brands Association, said that while the organization supports a uniform framework for the disclosure of modified foods, it has urged government officials to temporarily pause the new rules.
“We believe the government must take a ‘do no harm’ position right now that allows companies to focus on delivering essential products to consumers,” she said.
USDA officials maintain that they designed the standard to balance the need to provide information to consumers with the interest in minimizing costs to companies, while adding that those savings could be passed on to consumers, according to a USDA spokesperson.
Here’s what consumers need to know about the new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard: