The USDA’s New Rule Seeks Standardized Label for Bioengineered Foods

A new rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) now requires all food manufacturers and importers to disclose information about bioengineered (BE) food and BE food ingredients. Under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), foods marked as having genetically engineered (GE) ingredients or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will now be labeled as bioengineered.

Consumers can look out for two new BE labels, one for products that are bioengineered and one labeled derived from bioengineering. The USDA is also providing a label with a phone number that consumers can call or text to receive further information on BE foods. Some brands may choose to include a quick response (QR) code on the packaging, which consumers can scan to receive an online disclosure of the product’s BE food ingredients.

The NBFDS, originally announced in 2018, defines BE foods as those that contain “detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

According to the USDA’s current List of Bioengineered Foods, only a few products on the market are bioengineered, including some varieties of apples, canola, corn, eggplants, papaya, pineapples, potatoes, salmon, soybeans, squash, and sugarbeet.

For years, advocacy groups have called on labeling to promote transparency in the food system. But many of these same advocacy groups, including The Non-GMO Project, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the Center for Food Safety are raising concerns that the new rule doesn’t go far enough.

They worry that the rules leave several highly processed ingredients, derived from genetically engineered crops, as exempt from mandatory disclosure. These include sodas, refined sugar, and cooking oil. According to the Standard, if a soda contains corn syrup originating from BE corn, and the corn syrup lacks “detectable modified genetic material,” the corn syrup alone does not enable mandatory disclosure.

To promote transparency, Gregory Jaffe, Director of the Project on Biotechnology for CSPI, suggests the USDA should make it mandatory, not voluntary, to disclose ingredients that are “derived from” bioengineering. Without mandatory disclosure, consumers “may not understand that those products might be the same in terms of ingredients that come from bioengineering,” Jaffe tells Food Tank.

A USDA spokesperson tells Food Tank that “the Standard is designed to give consumers more information about their food.” According to the USDA, consumers should note that the labels are “for marketing purposes and do not convey any information about the health, safety, or environmental attributes of that food compared to non-bioengineered counterparts.”

The NBFDS also exempts animal feed, pet food, and personal care products, as well as some foods for direct human consumption, like meat, poultry, and eggs from the BE labeling law. The new standard also excludes food products that list meat, poultry, or eggs as the first or second ingredient after water, stock, or broth.

According to Jaffe, this provision of the law appears to promote greater transparency, as it significantly increases the number of products that would have been labeled under previous state laws. But the second aspect of this provision, which mandates BE labeling for meat, poultry, or eggs only when listed as the third ingredient, “will be confusing to consumers and could be seen as not increasing transparency,” Jaffe tells Food Tank.

The Non-GMO Project also worries that the reliance on QR codes to convey additional information about BE disclosures will create accessibility barriers. A study from Deloitte on technology and consumer access to information regarding BE foods finds that many consumers face technological challenges preventing them from obtaining information through electronic or digital disclosure methods. And According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of Americans currently do not own a smartphone. Pew also reports that 23 percent of Americans still lack access to adequate home broadband service.

As manufacturers and retailers change the way BE foods are disclosed on their packaging, the Standard also presents new guidelines for them to validate their claims about BE foods. The Standard lists three ways for companies to show the USDA that their food products do not contain modified genetic material or are exempt from disclosure. Companies can keep records verifying that a food is sourced from a non-bioengineered crop, including foods certified under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. They can also present proof that the foods have been subjected to a refining process rendering modified genetic material undetectable. Or, companies can keep testing records demonstrating the absence of modified genetic material.

While the USDA does not plan to undertake in-store spot checks of BE labeling, the entity will check for compliance if it received written complaints. Anyone suspected of a violation to the new rules can file a written complaint with the USDA’s AMS website.

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Photo courtesy of Mehrad Vosoughi, Unsplash

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