The United States Department of Agriculture defines bio-engineered foods as a food that “contains detectable genetic material that has been modified by certain laboratory techniques that cannot be created by conventional breeding or found in nature”.
If this definition sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially how genetically modified organisms or GMOs, are defined – common vocabulary that many people use and understand.
On January 1, 2022, the USDA implemented a new American Standard for the Disclosure of Foods Derived from Bioengineering. Shoppers see labels on food products with the terms “bioengineered” or “derived from bioengineered” printed on a green seal with the sun shining down on cropland.
Over 90% of corn, soy and sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically modified. This means that many processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup, beet sugar or soy protein may fall under the new disclosure standard. Other Whole Foods on the USDA List bio-engineered foods, such as some types of eggplants, potatoes and apples, may also need to carry labels.
Food manufacturers have historically opposite labeling. They argue that this misleads consumers into believing that biotech foods are unsafe. Innumerable studies, the USDA and the World Health Organization concluded that the consumption of genetically modified foods poses no health risks.
However, many consumers have demanded labels indicating whether foods contain genetically modified material. In 2014, Vermont enacted a strict law mandating the labeling of GMO foods. Fearing a checkerboard of state laws and regulations, food manufacturers have successfully lobbied for a federal disclosure law prevent other states from doing the same. Now the United States joins 64 countries that require some kind of labelling.
Consumer and right-to-know advocates are unhappy with the new federal disclosure standard. the Center for Food Security, the lead organization representing a coalition of nonprofits and food labeling retailers, filed suit against the USDA, arguing that the standard not only fails to use common language, but is misleading and discriminatory.
According to this view, the standard is misleading because loopholes exclude many biotechnology-derived foods from mandatory disclosure, which critics say is inconsistent with consumer expectations. If the genetic material is undetectable or represents less than 5% of the finished product, no disclosure is required. Therefore, many highly refined products – for example, sugar or oil from transgenic crops – may be excluded from labeling requirements.
Foods derived from biotechnology served in restaurants, cafeterias and transportation systems, including food trucks, are also excluded. And the standard excludes meat, poultry and eggs, as well as products that list these foods as the first ingredient or second ingredient after water, broth or both. It takes a USDA 43 minutes online seminar to explain what’s inside and what’s not under this new disclosure standard.
Proponents say the standard is discriminatory because it gives food manufacturers disclosure options that can replace the bioengineered green seal. They include listing a phone number to call or text for information or a QR code. But critics point out that many people in the United States lack of access to smartphones, especially those over 65 and those earning less than $30,000 a year.
In my opinion, consumers who want to avoid biotech foods might be better served by purchasing products that are certified organic, which prohibits genetically modified ingredients. Or they can look for the volunteer Non-GMO project verified label, which features a butterfly. It was launched in 2010 and appears on tens of thousands of grocery items. Both labels indicate that a third-party inspector has verified that the non-GMO standard has been met.
The new federal labeling standard has hit the market with little fanfare – likely because none of the sides in the battle over genetic modification and food consider it a victory.