Consumers have a right to know what’s in the food they buy, and the labels on grocery products convey important information. Although genetically modified food is healthy and safe, we respect that some people prefer to avoid it, and they should be able to see on a label what’s modified and what remains as nature intended.
In 2014, this page advocated for the federal government to take over the labeling of genetically modified products. Vermont had approved food-label rules applying only within that one small state, and other states, including Illinois, were considering separate labeling legislation. The food industry could have faced a hodgepodge of requirements that raised costs and only confused the public.
In 2016, Congress wisely gave the job to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and, on Jan. 1, its mandatory labeling rules took effect. If you haven’t already, you will notice new symbols and terminology to flag genetically modified products.
This should be a good day for consumers and the food industry alike.
But here’s a shocker: The Feds have managed to turn a straightforward mandate, designed to better inform the public, into a complicated decision tree that only a bureaucrat could love.
For starters, the government has replaced the commonly used term “genetically modified” and the acronyms GM or GMO. Instead, food manufacturers now are required to use “bioengineered,” or BE for short, on their labels. That would be fine, and less pejorative, if anyone apart from experts understood what it meant.
For the everyday grocery shopper, seeing “bioengineered” on a label will elicit, at best, a “huh?” At worst, the unfamiliar term could lead people away from a perfectly good product.
The USDA also bent itself into a BE pretzel trying to define why a particular product should (or should not) be called “bioengineered.”
Most of the Midwest’s economically crucial corn and soybean crop is grown from genetically modified seed. This technology has been a boon to agriculture, enabling farmers to use pesticides and herbicides more efficiently and to achieve better yields during droughts. So, if most of the corn and beans we grow are modified, wouldn’t corn or soybean oil made from those same crops need to be labeled as bioengineered?
Probably not, according to the USDA, where a hairsplitting legal team must have had the final pen on the regulations. Labels are supposed to disclose ingredients “derived from biotechnology” or “ingredients derived from a bioengineered source.” Yet refined products like oil do not require a disclosure if the bioengineered material is removed in processing. Similarly, sugar from GMO sugar beets, widely grown in the U.S., won’t need a label if the GMO part is undetectable using “common” testing methods.
There’s a loophole you could drive a tractor through.
Also, the new regulations do not apply to meat, poultry or eggs, as those products are regulated separately. Even if the second ingredient on a label is bioengineered, for instance, no disclosure is required if the first ingredient is meat.
The USDA assumed far too much in giving food companies various communication options. Food labels already are packed with required information, and we support making them simpler and more succinct. But the USDA is allowing food companies to use electronic or digital links such as QR codes that need to be scanned with smartphones. That’s bad news for the millions of Americans who don’t have smartphones at the ready in the grocery store but still deserve to know what’s in their food.
The timing of these new rules is a problem, too. The food industry is reeling from COVID-19 staffing shortages and supply chain gridlock that has forced it to source ingredients from far and wide. Some companies haven’t had the time or resources to pin down every ingredient that might need to be labeled, and the USDA declined requests to postpone the Jan. 1 deadline. What happens next is anyone’s guess, as enforcement of the new rules is likely to be catch-as-catch-can, and mainly in response to random complaints as opposed to any consistent policing from the Feds.
What’s most surreal about this bureaucratic frolic is that no one should doubt the safety of genetically modified food anymore. We’ve been consuming it for generations with no ill effects, and, mercifully, we’re seeing fewer of the “Frankenfood” scare campaigns used by anti-GMO advocates in decades past. Many consumers with strong feelings on the matter have gotten used to buying organic, which is never bioengineered.
In fact, the world needs more genetically modified products to improve nutrition and feed the planet, as climate change plays havoc with the weather. The technology will be critical for making agriculture sustainable in the future.
All along, the foods derived from bioengineering deserved better treatment than they received. This latest labeling complication has only added to the problem.