Products marked with the voluntary Non-GMO Project label. (Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images)

Foodmakers will soon be required to disclose when their products contain genetically modified ingredients — but those labels may not be as obvious, or as comprehensive, as consumers expected.

Food products may be exempted from labeling if they are made with some refined genetically modified sugars and oils, or if a product contains those ingredients in amounts that fall beneath a predetermined threshold, according to a proposed rule released by the Agriculture Department on Thursday.

The proposed rule also instructs foodmakers to use the term “bioengineered” to label such foods instead of “genetically modified,” a more recognizable phrase.

The proposed rule, which will now undergo a public comment period and could be finalized as early as this summer, represents a major milestone in the complicated, years-long process to regulate the labeling of genetically modified foods. Congress passed a mandatory-labeling law in 2016, but implementation has been delayed by questions about which foods should be covered and what types of labels foodmakers should use.

Food and consumer groups said they were happy to see the rules move forward, though some expressed concern about provisions they say could leave many products excluded and many shoppers confused.

“We think, at the most fundamental level, consumers expect the mandatory GM labeling standard to apply to all GM foods,” said Colin O’Neil, the legislative director for the Environmental Working Group.

The proposed rule provides the best glimpse so far into what mandatory  labels will look like — while still leaving some questions open.


One of the proposed options for a GM icon. “BE” stands for “bioengineered.” (Agriculture Department)

Food companies will have three options for disclosing the ingredients, the USDA said: a one-sentence label declaration, such as “contains a bioengineered food ingredient”; a standardized icon, such as the one used in the National Organic Program; or a QR code or other digital marker that directs shoppers to a website for more information. In a statement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association praised the flexible standard, pointing out that it has already put QR codes on 25,000 products through its SmartLabel program.

“We welcome the release of the proposed rule ... and will be working with our member companies to review and develop comments on the draft rule and the USDA questions,” the association said in a statement. “Our comments to USDA will reflect the ongoing commitment of our member companies to providing consumers with the transparency they need to make informed product choices.”

As to which foods will be considered genetically modified, the USDA has proposed a number of options. Under one plan, the USDA said it would exempt highly refined sugars and oils, such as those made from genetically modified corn, soybeans and sugar beets, from labeling, on the grounds that the refinement process screens out modified DNA. Consumer groups have warned that this would effectively exempt as much as 70 percent of covered food products from GMO labeling.

Under another plan, the USDA would exempt products containing ingredients from mixed sources that were less than 5 percent genetically modified by weight. While that represents a tiny amount overall, it is significantly higher than the 0.9 percent threshold observed by China, Russia and the European Union, as well as by the Non-GMO Project, a voluntary initiative.

While some food companies and consumer groups urged the USDA to allow phrases such as "GMO" or "genetically engineered" on the labels, the agency stuck with "bioengineered," the term used by Congress.

That decision and the proposed exemption drew immediate criticism from advocacy groups that have pushed for stricter standards.

“The USDA’s proposed loophole-ridden GMO labeling rules are a giveaway to the agribusiness and food industries that want to keep consumers in the dark about what they are eating,” said Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of the consumer group Food & Water Watch.

Critics and advocates of the new rule can weigh in until July 3, when the public comment period closes. The final rules are due by July 29, though Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said last week that they probably would not be finalized until the end of the summer.

While there is no evidence that genetically modified crops pose a risk to human health, consumers have increasingly demanded more disclosure of those ingredients. Only a handful of such crops are available on the market, though some — such as corn and sugar beets — show up in a huge variety of food products.

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