The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines bioengineered foods as foods that “contain detectable genetic material that has been modified by certain laboratory techniques that cannot be created by conventional reproduction or found in nature.”
If this definition sounds familiar, it is because it is essentially how genetically modified organisms or GMOs are defined – a common vocabulary that many use and understand.
On January 1, 2022, the USDA implemented a new U.S. standard for the disclosure of bioengineered foods. Buyers see food labels with the terms “bioengineering” or “bioengineering derivative” printed on a green seal with the sun shining on the cultivated land.
More than 90% of corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically modified. This means that many processed foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup, sugar beet sugar or soy protein may fall under the new disclosure standard. Other whole foods on the USDA list of bioengineered foods, such as certain types of eggplant, potatoes and apples, may also need to be labeled.
Food manufacturers have historically opposed labeling. They claim to mislead consumers into believing that bioengineered foods are unsafe. Numerous studies, the USDA and the World Health Organization have concluded that the consumption of genetically modified foods does not pose a health risk.
However, many consumers have asked for labels to tell them if the food contains genetically modified material. In 2014, Vermont passed a strict law requiring GMO food labeling. Fearing a chessboard of state laws and regulations, food producers have successfully lobbied for a federal disclosure law that would prevent other states from doing the same. The United States is now joining the 64 countries that require some form of labeling.
Consumers and advocates are not satisfied with the new federal disclosure standard. The Center for Food Safety, the main organization representing a coalition of nonprofits and retailers, has filed a lawsuit against the USDA, arguing that the standard not only does not use common language, but is misleading and discriminatory.
According to this view, the standard is misleading because the gaps exclude many bioengineered foods from mandatory disclosure, which critics say is contrary to consumer expectations. If the genetic material is undetectable or less than five percent of the finished product, no disclosure is required. As a result, many highly refined products – for example, sugar or oil from a bioengineered crop – can be excluded from labeling requirements.
Bioengineered food served in restaurants, canteens and transport systems, including food trucks, is also excluded. And the standard excludes meat, poultry and eggs, as well as products that list those foods as either the first ingredient or the second ingredient after water, broth or both. It takes a 43-minute USDA webinar to explain what’s in and out of this new disclosure standard.
Lawyers argue that the standard is discriminatory because it provides food manufacturers with disclosure options that can replace the green bioengineering seal. These include listing a phone number to call or a text message for information or a QR code. But critics point out that many people in the United States do not have access to smartphones, especially those over the age of 65 and those earning less than $ 30,000 a year.
In my opinion, consumers who want to avoid bioengineered foods could be best served by buying certified organic products that ban genetically modified ingredients. Or they can search for the voluntary Non-GMO Project Verified label, which features a butterfly. It was launched in 2010 and appears on tens of thousands of food products. 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 fuss – probably because neither side in the fight for genetic modification and food sees this as a victory.
– Kathleen Merrigan is a professor of Kelly and Brian Swette at the School of Sustainability and executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University. This article originally appeared in The Conversation.
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