Bioengineered Labeling Standards
For nearly a decade, food co-ops like Outpost have advocated for national, mandatory labeling of foods produced with genetic engineering (GMOs). We have called for a clear, simple label that informs at a glance if a product contains ingredients that were produced using genetic engineering. Our motivation has always been simple: we believe that people have a right to know what’s in their food.
A strong grassroots effort that included the voices of many Outpost shoppers and staff succeeded in raising the call for GMO labeling to the attention of Congress. In 2016, Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, a law that requires labeling of genetically engineered (“bioengineered”) foods. Accordingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed and released labeling requirements in late 2018 that offer food companies several options for disclosing the presence of genetically modified materials in their products. This labeling requirement went into place on January 1, 2022.
Learning more about labeling requirements can help you make informed choices
What’s in a name? GMO to Bioengineered (BE)
Despite widespread familiarity with the terms GMO and genetically engineered, the new labels will exclusively use the term "bioengineered" to refer to food that contains genetically modified DNA. In fact, companies are prohibited from using the terms GMO, genetically modified and genetically engineered to describe products that do contain genetically modified material on the label.
Products that do not contain genetically modified material (such as those verified by the Non-GMO Project) will be allowed to continue to use the term Non-GMO in labeling.
What to look for on the package
USDA offers food companies several different ways to legally label bioengineered foods, to be determined at the company’s discretion.
- Written disclosure - The most direct option companies can choose is to provide a written disclosure on the ingredient panel that says bioengineered food, or contains a bioengineered food ingredient.
- Symbol - Companies may instead choose to disclose using a symbol designed by USDA that reads BIOENGINEERED.
- Electronic or digital disclosure - Companies can choose to include a QR code on the package that will lead to a written bioengineered food disclosure when a customer scans it. This is the least transparent of the labeling options and can be a barrier to those who do not have a smartphone and/or reliable internet access to view the bioengineered food disclosure online. In certain circumstances, companies could also use text messages, phone numbers or web addresses to provide a bioengineered disclosure.
Which foods are required to be labeled?
Many (but not all) foods containing detectable amounts of genetically modified materials must be labeled. For example, cereal made with GMO corn must be labeled.
Exemptions to the BE labeling standards
Derived from bioengineering
Highly refined oils and sugars, like those extracted from corn, soybeans and sugar beets, lose so much of their unique DNA during processing that it is no longer detectable by currently available tests. Foods made with these extremely common ingredients, even though they may have been derived from bioengineered crops, are not required to be labeled unless there is other detectable bioengineered DNA in the product. Companies may voluntarily choose to disclose these processed ingredients using the options listed above, with the language “derived from bioengineering”.
Labeling exemptions for dairy products, eggs and meats
Products like milk, cheese, ice cream, eggs and meats that come from animals fed a diet that includes bioengineered feed like corn, alfalfa and soy are not subject to labeling.
Companies are actually prohibited from disclosing GMOs in any multi-ingredient food that has beef, poultry, catfish or eggs as a top ingredient, even if they contain other GMO ingredients. GMO corn used in breakfast cereal requires BE labeling. However, the same corn used as an ingredient in beef soup does not require BE labeling. The Non-GMO Project website offers a further look into this.
USDA organic certification remains the gold standard for transparency
Although the bioengineered food labels fall short of the transparency that Outpost and many shoppers advocated for and want—there is still a popular food label that provides transparency in production—USDA organic certification. Organic food, by law, cannot be produced from GMO plants or animals, making it a meaningful way for people to know how their food was produced and what’s in it.
The trend continues to track toward more labeling transparency. Companies that champion their customers’ right to know how their food was produced will likely choose the on-package written disclosure or symbol, and use USDA’s voluntary labels to the extent allowed by law, even if their product is exempt. Some companies may even join consumer groups to legally challenge those exemptions. We take heart in the fact that many companies have heard from their customers and food co-ops when it comes to this issue.
Outpost will continue to work within our supply chain to encourage transparent and straightforward labeling. If you have further questions, check out USDA’s answers to frequently asked questions about bioengineered labeling requirements.