Whether it’s organic, gluten-free, or natural, people want to know what’s in the food and supplements they consume.
Genetically modified food and ingredients have been around since the 1990s, but there’s been growing public concern about them. According to the GMO Literacy Project, over two dozen countries, including the United States, grow genetically modified crops, while 19 of 28 European Union nations have partially or fully banned GMOs.
GMO Labeling in the United States
In the United States, labeling guidelines for GMOs were initially under the substantial equivalence principle. In other words, they were equivalent to other, non-modified crops being grown. Both regulators and businesses considered GMO plants harmless and saw no need to label them.
Due to the increasing prevalence of GMO foods, and 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 bioengineered (BE) foods.
‘Genetically Modified’ Becomes ‘Bioengineered’
Instead of the term “genetically modified,” the labels say “bioengineered” and can be presented in one of four ways per the USDA:
On-package Text, e.g., “Bioengineered Food,” or “Contains a Bioengineered Food Ingredient.”
Electronic or digital disclosure – must include instructions to “Scan here for more food information” or similar language, and include a phone number.
Text message disclosure – “Text [command word] to [number] for bioengineered food information.”
But it’s not that straightforward. While the new standard technically went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, the mandatory compliance won’t be in place for another two years. When it’s in place, the USDA will depend on self-reporting for enforcement.
With that said, large food companies can now use the symbol to show consumers ingredients that meet the government’s definition of bioengineered.
Confusion Over What Foods Are Exempt
According to Food Processing magazine, many ingredients, like corn syrup or soybean oil, are made from commodities that are often bioengineered. Still, they undergo such extensive refinement that it destroys genetic material. As such, these foods are exempt from bioengineered labels.
Since so many questions remain about what meets the definition of a bioengineered material, many companies are in a holding pattern until more information is available.
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