Microscope, GMO plants, DNA strand, test tube, and clipboard showing GMO soybeans and peanuts

Mandatory GMO Labeling: Pros and Cons

Denis Storey
April 7, 2020

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Genetically modified food (GMO) – or bioengineered (BE) – labeling is a hotly debated topic. Admittedly, the numbers can be confusing.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up to 92% of corn has been bioengineered, 94% of soybeans, and 96% cotton. Some estimates suggest that three-quarters of food in the average grocery store has been bioengineered in some way.

But, if you ask consumers about it, they're deeply divided about BE foods. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 49% of Americans believe B.E. foods are bad for their health. That number was up 10 points over a similar survey just two years earlier.

Whether it's because of the increasing prevalence of BE foods, or the growing public mistrust of them, in 2016, Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which charged the USDA with establishing a labeling standard for BE foods.

In short, the law requires BE labeling for foods and beverages intended for human consumption that contain more than 5% bioengineered ingredients.

Exclusions Include:

  • Foods derived from animals, such as eggs, meat, and milk.

  • Refined ingredients like oils and sugars.

  • Food served in a restaurant.

  • Foods manufactured and sold by small producers (local shops, etc.).

  • Any non-food products.

The Labels Must Appear One of Three Ways:

  • Text on food packaging.

  • A symbol identifying bioengineering.

  • A scannable electronic or digital link.

Drafted on Feb. 19, 2019, this rule's implementation didn't begin until Jan. 1, 2020. However, smaller manufacturers have until Jan. 1, 2021, while the mandatory compliance date isn't until Jan. 1, 2022.   

Is BE labeling good for consumers? Could it hurt manufacturers that use BEs in their products?

It's tough to take one side or the other. To help provide some facts about the topic, we've listed a few of the pros and cons of mandatory GMO labeling.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary Labeling

There's a difference between mandatory and voluntary BE labeling. First of all, voluntary labeling is more about marketing to consumers, letting BE-conscious shoppers know products don't contain bioengineered ingredients.

On the other hand, mandatory labeling goes significantly further and requires that all food products containing BE ingredients inform consumers.

Pros and Cons to Mandatory GMO Labeling


Right to Know: Consumers have a right to know what's in their food. And if a consumer is concerned about BE ingredients in their food products, labeling will help with their buying decisions.

Helps Vegetarians, Vegans, and Certain Religions: By adding labels to BE products, vegetarians, vegans, and those practicing certain religions can more easily determine if a product is modified.

Everyone Else Is Doing It: At least 64 countries worldwide, including the European Union, Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, and Russia, have some labeling requirements for BE foods. And the vast majority of U.S. consumers support mandatory BE labeling.


Lack of Understanding GMOs: While consumers can quickly determine which products contain BE ingredients with an implemented labeling system, there's still a sizable segment of the population that doesn't entirely understand what the term genetically or bioengineered means. This lack of knowledge could hurt many manufacturers, as consumers might view the label as a warning. For example, a 2015 FooDS survey revealed that roughly 80% of Americans support the mandatory labeling of GMO foods "produced with genetic engineering." Still, they also said they would support "mandatory labels on foods containing DNA." 

Costs Would Trickle Down: Manufacturers still argue the overall implementation costs are prohibitive and may eventually trickle down to consumers' pockets, driving prices up in grocery stores.

There Are Already Non-GMO Products: For consumers who prefer non-B.E. products, they're already on store shelves.

With mandatory BE labeling, it's more important than ever that manufacturers know exactly where their ingredients come from and what each lot shipment's specifications are to ensure they're always in compliance with whatever appears on the label of finished products.

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