Take a look at the back of the cans and boxes in your cupboards and you’re likely to see some that say “contains bioengineered food ingredients.”
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began mandating labeling for foods that are genetically modified or contain GMO ingredients.
The national standard was endorsed by some farm industry groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation. But the use of “bioengineered” in place of the more widely-known term “GMO” upset a coalition of food retailers and nonprofits that sued the USDA. A federal court largely upheld the law.
A year into mandatory labeling, some consumer groups and grocery stores complain the labels are too small, too confusing and too timid by leaving off the term “GMO” that’s most familiar to the public. Some experts suggest consumers aren’t noticing the labels, let alone using them to inform their purchasing decisions.
A national standard
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded GMOs are safe to eat. Even so, some states, including Vermont, Colorado and Oregon began passing or trying to pass laws in 2014 that required genetically modified foods be marked.
The federal government responded and in 2016 Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, preempting any state standards.
“By providing a uniform national standard for labeling bioengineered foods, we can increase transparency in our food system and give consumers information about the bioengineered status of their foods,” said Anna Waller, marketing specialist with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, during a 2020 webinar.
She added, “While doing so, we avoid a patchwork of state labeling regulations that could be confusing for consumers and expensive for manufacturers.”
Initially, the disclosure statement that took effect in 2020 was voluntary. Mandatory labeling began Jan. 1, 2022, and foods and packages include a small seal or text that says “bioengineered,” or “derived from bioengineering.”
Enforcement is done through complaints. Consumers can file complaints with the USDA if they suspect a grocery store, manufacturer or importer is knowingly not disclosing a bioengineered food. The USDA will determine whether or not to investigate further.
The USDA did not provide an interview in time for this story after more than a month of requests, but in an email to Harvest Public Media, a spokesperson said the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has received 11 complaints since mandatory compliance began last year. Six of those complaints were “closed for procedural deficiency” and five are under review.
“We believe that our outreach efforts have been successful,” the spokesperson said, adding that the USDA continues to assist food manufacturers, importers and retailers on how to comply with the disclosure standard.
The USDA said it has spoken with various regulators in the food industry and, “The consensus has been that implementation of the Standard has been manageable,” the USDA spokesperson said.
What foods are bioengineered?
Thirteen crops and foods require the labeling, such as genetically modified apples, potatoes and pink flesh pineapple.
Yet much of the bioengineered labeling winds up on products that use GMO crops. Most of the corn, canola, soybeans and sugar beets harvested in the U.S. are genetically modified, said William Hallman, a professor and chair for Rutgers University’s Department of Human Ecology.
“We make so many ingredients out of those particular crops,” Hallman said.
For instance, high fructose corn syrup made from corn goes into lots of other foods.
But that also presents a sort of loophole in the USDA’s standards. Hallman said corn oil, canola oil and sugar from sugar beets are “basically stripped of the DNA in them.” So even though the crops are genetically modified, “the ingredients don’t necessarily qualify for mandatory disclosure,” he said.
The USDA requires bioengineered ingredients be disclosed, but not if the modified genetic material is undetectable.
“It complicates things immensely,” Hallman said. “The question is, what is the law intended to do; the law is intended to disclose and make transparent to consumers what it is that they’re eating.”
Critics like the Center for Food Safety and some grocery stores and food advocacy groups challenged the USDA in court over the exclusion of many products from the standard.
They also complained the term “bioengineered” would confuse and mislead consumers and that electronic and digital forms of labeling, such as QR codes, would discriminate against many consumers who may not have a smartphone. A federal court largely upheld the labeling standard in September 2022, but said the USDA needed to review the QR code and text message disclosure methods.
Natural Grocers was one of the parties that sued. The Colorado-based retail chain sells organic produce as well as organic and non-GMO products.
“It doesn’t do anything in our view,” said Alan Lewis, the company’s vice president of advocacy and governmental affairs about the bioengineered disclosure requirement. “It was designed to obfuscate.”
Lewis said one of the labeling methods, a small typed statement disclosing that a food or product is bioengineered, is “hard to find.” He added the disclosure is too narrow and confusing to help consumers.
“A shopper that cares about non-GMO and protecting the planet, environment and their family’s health isn’t using that as a source of reliable, consistent information,” he said.
It’s difficult to know if consumers are aware of the disclosure standard.
A study done by Consumer Reports in 2014 surveyed more than 1,000 adults and found 72% felt it was “crucial” to avoid genetically modified or engineered ingredients. The majority of respondents felt these foods should be labeled accordingly.
Brian Ronholm, the director of food policy for Consumer Reports, said people care about GMOs. But the USDA standard uses the term “bioengineered” and only requires a statement in small print or a small symbol.
“It should be labeled more clearly so it’s very easy for consumers to understand,” Ronholm said.
Consumers, he said, want meaningful labels on genetically modified foods.
“We’re kind of going through this age where people want to know more about what’s in their foods,” he said. “Certainly GMO is front and center as part of that debate.”
Rutgers University’s William Hallman and colleagues currently are studying what percentage of the public has noticed the various labels.
Yet even if consumers notice the label, it may not impact their food choices.
Vermont enacted its own rules on disclosing GMOs — ones that were trumped by the federal regulations in 2016. A Cornell University study found the mandatory labeling had a negligible effect on which products consumers bought.
Instead, said Aaron Adalja, one of the co-authors of the research, any changes consumers wanted to make, such as shifting to non-GMO products, happened during the legislative process, long before the label was implemented.
Adalja said he expects that to be the case with the national standard as well.
“We don’t expect it to have any additional effect on consumer behavior in the short run,” he said. “We don’t expect there to be a big blip, a big drop in GMO demand or a big change in demand.”
Adalja points to the Non-GMO Project, which verifies and labels foods made without genetic engineering. Since 2010, products that are a part of this have borne a label with a butterfly on it that says “Non-GMO Project” with the word “verified” underneath it. Companies that want these labels on their products have to pay for it and have their products and ingredients evaluated for proof of no GMOs.
“Consumers who want non-GMO have had a decade or more to sort into those products,” Adalja said.
Journal reference: Adalja, Aaron, et al. “GMO and non-GMO Labeling Effects: Evidence from a Quasi-Natural Experiment.” Marketing Science, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1287/mksc.2022.1375, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM