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GMO is out, 'bioengineered' is in, as new U.S. food labeling rules take effect

In this Feb. 21, 2020 photo, a worker checks items on a shelf in the produce section of an Amazon Go Grocery store set to open soon in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Ted S. Warren
In this Feb. 21, 2020 photo, a worker checks items on a shelf in the produce section of an Amazon Go Grocery store set to open soon in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Say goodbye to GMOs. The new term for foods created with a boost from science is "bioengineered."

As of Jan. 1, food manufacturers, importers and retailers in the U.S. must comply with a new national labeling standard for food that's been genetically modified in a way that isn't possible through natural growth.

Consumers will begin to see labels on some foods that say "bioengineered" or "derived from bioengineering," as the new federal standard takes hold and replaces the former patchwork of state-level requirements.

The change has been several years in the making. In 2016, Congress passed a law to establish a national benchmark for the labeling of genetically modified food in an attempt to give people more information about what they eat and standardize labels across the country. Sonny Perdue, who served as agriculture secretary during the Trump administration, announced the regulations in 2018.

Food producers can use these two logos approved by the USDA to label bioengineered food under the new national standard that took effect on Jan. 1.
/ U.S. Department of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Food producers can use these two logos approved by the USDA to label bioengineered food under the new national standard that took effect on Jan. 1.

"The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard increases the transparency of our nation's food system, establishing guidelines for regulated entities on when and how to disclose bioengineered ingredients," Perdue said at the time. "This ensures clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food."

But critics say the rules devised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will actually confuse consumers further and make it harder to know what's in any given product. One advocacy group has even sued the USDA to try to block the new regulations from taking effect.

The new rules give food producers a few options

Some commonly bioengineered foods include corn, canola, soybeans and sugar beets. Most GMO crops are used for animal feed, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But they are also used to make ingredients that routinely find their way into human diets, such as cornstarch, corn syrup, canola oil and granulated sugar.

The USDA says that the list of items on its website isn't exhaustive and that other foods with genetic modifications will be subject to the labeling rules.

Companies with products that qualify as bioengineered can comply with the new standard in several ways.

They can include text on food packages that says "bioengineered food" or "contains a bioengineered food ingredient." They can also use two logos approved by the USDA.

Finally, they can include a QR code for consumers to scan or a phone number for them to text that will provide more information about that food item.

The new standard applies to genetically modified foods as well as foods with genetically modified ingredients that are "detectable" by certain standards.

Shoppers who suspect an unlabeled item is actually a bioengineered food can file a complaint with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

Establishments like restaurants don't have to comply with the new rule, but they can do so voluntarily.

The logos are confusing and the rules don't go far enough, critics say

The Center for Food Safety, one advocacy group opposed to the new standard, says it makes it easier for companies to conceal what's in their products and leaves consumers in the dark.

Although there's no evidence that genetically modified crops are harmful to human health, according to the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, advocates say people still deserve to know what they're eating.

"These regulations are not about informing the public but rather designed to allow corporations to hide their use of genetically engineered ingredients from their customers," Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.

The group has sued the USDA in federal court in an attempt to block the new rules. The case remains ongoing.

The new standard doesn't allow producers to use more common labeling terms like "GMO," the lawsuit argues, and it will leave out many foods that are "highly refined" or contain levels of bioengineered ingredients that aren't detectable, such as soda and cooking oil. The group estimates that the majority of genetically modified food are processed items with genetically modified ingredients.

Additionally, the new standard discriminates against the poor, the elderly, people who live in rural areas and minorities who may lack a smartphone or access to the internet, the group said. It also puts an "undue burden" on shoppers to scan food items in stores during a deadly pandemic, advocates have argued.

Producers have also argued that the rule changes come at a bad time, with the ongoing pandemic and supply-chain woes that's making it a challenge to meet consumer demand, The Washington Post reported.

The USDA declined to comment for this story, citing the pending lawsuit. But a spokesperson for the agency told the Post that the new rules are meant to balance the desire to keep consumers better informed with the interest of minimizing costs for producers.

Despite other criticism, groups such as the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association praised the new standard when it was announced in 2018, saying it would create more transparency in the food industry.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]