Welcome to 2022 and the shiny new federal labeling rule that will require manufacturers to disclose when foods are bioengineered! Sort of ...
The new law essentially replaces a patchwork of state regulations regarding the labeling of genetically modified foods and food products. Unfortunately, the law is sure to create confusion and make it burdensome for some consumers to know if the foods they eat contain genetically modified ingredients.
"Bioengineered" is the new term for genetically engineered (GE) ingredients and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Bioengineered plants or animals essentially have an inserted gene that comes from a laboratory. The idea is to make the host plant or animal more resistant to disease or pests or to increase nutritional value.
Labels that declare "contains bioengineered food ingredients" mean at least one food ingredient includes DNA from a laboratory produced gene(s).
So ... it should be simple right? People who wish to avoid eating GMO and GE products should just say no to bioengineered labeled products on their grocery shelves.
Except it ain't that simple.
First off, food manufacturers don't necessarily have to put "contains bioengineered food ingredients" on the label. In fact many probably won't.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided an electronic QR code or a note to receive a text message will suffice. Small companies can stay on the right side of the law with either a website or phone number.
But that's not the worst of it for those who want to avoid GMOs.
The USDA made "highly refined" ingredients exempt - things like high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil both of which are derived from - wait for it - GMO crops. And of course, apples, eggplants, papayas, pineapples, potatoes and salmon can contain GMOs.
And if that isn't troublesome enough, other GMO labels - notably the USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified - will remain.
And in case you are wondering, food service establishments and restaurants get a full pass on the new rules.
The debate of whether GMO foods are safe to eat has raged for decades. And even though the World Health Organization and American Medical Association concluded GMOs are safe, we should have empathy for those who prefer to avoid such foods.
And obviously, that's where the law fails. Transparency is far less than 100%.
That's in part the point of a lawsuit working its way through the federal courts filed by the Center for Food Safety (CFS). The CFS contends USDA in mandating labels with the word "bioengineered" and prohibiting use of GMO and GE labels will, at its root, confuse and make it difficult for consumers to make shopping decisions:
"Despite that instruction and the overwhelming support from stakeholders to allow continued use of the far more well-known ‘GE'/ ‘GMO' terms, in its final rule USDA instead excluded ‘GE' and ‘GMO,' prohibiting them from use in the on-package text or symbol labeling, only allowing use of the term bioengineered.
"That decision was arbitrary and capricious, contrary to the Act's plain language and the APA and failed to fulfill the Act's fundamental purpose of informing consumers. It is antithetical to the Act's purpose because it will confuse and mislead consumers."
CFS also contends the new rules will discriminate against more than 100 million Americans without smartphones or cell service.
USDA must respond to the CFS claims by mid-February. After that, the United States Beet Sugar Association, the American Sugar Beet Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation will weigh in on the debate.
Then it's back to the CFS counter-reply due in late March.
It's probably not likely the courts will rule that USDA will need to go back to the drawing board. But here's hoping something can be tweaked to improve transparency for folk wishing to avoid GMOs.