Genetically Engineered Food Regulations, Disclosures and Labeling

Genetically modified (engineered) foods are often controversial. The following summarizes the latest news.

Which crops and foods are most likely to be genetically engineered (GE)? There is a high adoption rate for GE crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, and canola. Most GE varieties of these crops have herbicide-resistance traits. They have been engineered to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in the most widely applied herbicide worldwide, Roundup. Newer GE crops are resistant to dicamba, 2,4-D, glufosinate, and a growing list of other herbicides. Various studies suggest that glyphosate-based herbicides alter the microbiota in soil, plants, and raise health concerns about the effects on animals’ gut microbiota. Emerging research also suggests that use of glyphosate-based herbicides contributes to development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Therefore, glyphosate based herbicides may have the potential to modify animal and human microbiota, which may influence human health (Environmental Health 2018).

USDA regulations for genetically engineered (bioengineered) foods. In December 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the long-awaited regulations for the mandatory disclosure of GE foods (also called “bioengineered” foods). They prohibit the use of the widely known terms “GMO” (Genetically Modified Organism) and “GE.” The regulations stem from a 2016 law signed by President Obama establishing a mandatory national disclosure standard for GE foods (Pub. Law 114-216), titled the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. Consumer groups remain critical of some aspects of USDA’s labeling regulations as they may lead to consumer confusion.

Possible Updates on Labels

As of January 1, 2022, food companies will have four options to disclose bioengineered food content:

  • On-package text: “Bioengineered Food,” or “Contains a Bioengineered Food Ingredient”
  • Electronic or digital disclosure, e.g. QR codes. It must include instructions to “Scan here for more food information” or similar language, and includes a phone number.
  • Text message disclosure
  • USDA-approved symbol

Labeling and disclosures. A major point of contention is that the USDA uses the term “bioengineered” and prohibits the use of alternative terms including “genetic engineering” or “GMO”. According to Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, Food Sleuth, “the term bioengineered is foreign to many consumers.” They are accustomed to “GMO” as the term of choice to designate genetically modified crop content. An analysis of consumers’ attitudes by the Hartman Group (2018) reported that the percentage of consumers with some level of understanding of GMOs is 97%, and that close to half of consumers are actively avoiding GMOs.

The USDA allows manufacturers to choose quick response (QR) codes, which are encoded images on a package that must be scanned. However, USDA’s own study released in 2017 found that use of QR codes are discriminatory against one third of Americans who do not own smartphones, and against rural, low income, and elderly populations, and those without access to the Internet.

Disclosure loopholes for highly refined foods with GE (bioengineered) ingredients. The majority of highly refined products made from GE crops will be exempted from labeling. This category includes cooking oils, candies, and sodas with ingredients derived from GE crops such as corn, canola, and sugar beets, but in a processed form that the GE content may not be detectable using current testing methods. The regulations set a 5% threshold for unintended GE ingredients in a processed food, which is over five times higher than the European Union’s 0.9% standard.

In absence of mandatory labels, what can consumers do? Polls consistently show that nearly 90% of Americans support the labeling of GE foods or GMOs. Consumers who want to avoid genetically engineered foods in the marketplace can look for the following labels: USDA Organic Certified and Non-GMO Project Verified. These labels remain the only dependable way to avoid GMOs.

—Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RDN

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