Do genetically modified foods have to be labeled in the US?

By Emily Journey / Contributor

Much has been researched and written about the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food. And the findings and opinions are fervently divided.

Do genetically modified foods have to be labeled in the US?

By Emily Journey / Contributor

Much has been researched and written about the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food. And the findings and opinions are fervently divided.

As U.S. consumers become more health conscious and aware of genetically modified foods, many want to know if GMOs are in the products they buy.  And the first place consumers look for that information is in the label.

Anyone who has walked down the aisle of the grocery store has noticed the inconsistent labeling among the foods. Sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what terminology the labels use. This begs the question: Do genetically modified foods have to be labeled in the U.S.?

The answer? Soon, but not everyone is pleased with the result.

The reason behind this ambiguous answer is that regulating the labeling of genetically modified foods has been a long, complicated process.

Getting everyone to agree that consumers need a simple, uniform, and comprehensive labeling system is one thing. Getting everyone to agree on the details of that labeling system is another.  

label on tomatoe

The Law Requiring Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods

On July 29, 2016 President Barack Obama signed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard into law. This law directs the USDA to establish a national standard that will disclose certain food products and ingredients that are bioengineered. 

This was a big first step in the right direction for food and consumer groups, but it was not as comprehensive or clear as some may have hoped. As a result of this law, the USDA finalized a list of guidelines in December 2018 providing information such as foods to be disclosed, a list of bioengineered foods, factors and considerations, exemptions, rules, record keeping requirements, disclosure placement, and much more. Food companies are required to comply with these guidelines starting January 2022. You can read the final rule document here, but be prepared — it’s 239 pages long. 

Here are some highlights: 

  • The label will use the term “bioengineered” instead of “genetically modified” as the USDA feels more people would recognize and understand its meaning. However, a number of members of the scientific community disagree with this designation, arguing that the term “genetically modified” is “more familiar and scientifically accurate.
  • If a food contains refined sugars and oils produced with genetically modified ingredients that are no longer detectable, the label is voluntary, not mandatory. Some argue this is destined to cause consumer confusion.
  • Products containing ingredients from mixed sources, or “incidental” ingredients, that are less than five percent genetically modified by weight are exempt from labeling.
  • “Food to-go” items made in supermarkets, such as salads and sandwiches are exempt from the labeling guidelines, even if they use genetically modified food in their products.
  • Food companies can disclose the bioengineered ingredients (1) in one sentence on the label, (2) using a logo similar to the NOP’s or (3) offering a QR code that will lead a shopper to a website for more information about the product.

It’s interesting that, even once the law is enforced, it’s possible that GMOs could slip through the cracks. The issue with this comes with the known fact that even the best-intentioned organic farmers can fall victim to cross contamination. In addition, highly refined items that were made from genetically modified organisms, but no longer tested as such, are exempt from the rules. What’s the point of labeling something “not bioengineered” if some of the rules almost guarantee there may be some GMOs present?

Although the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard will not be enforced until 2022, some companies have been voluntarily placing labels on their non-genetically engineered foods for years. These voluntary labels will be allowed to continue under the new guidelines:   

  • Smartlabel: Some companies opt to use SmartLabel, created in 2015 by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute called the Trading Partner Alliance. Since there is not enough room on a product label to list all of a product’s information, consumers can access all the information they would want to know via their phone, tablet or desktop computer. They can scan the SmartLabel QR code on the packages, visit the company’s website, call a 1-800 number on the packaging, use the SmartLabel app, search the web, or visit SmartLabel product search.
  • FDA Labeling: The FDA has issued some guidance for companies who choose to voluntarily label their food as not produced using genetic engineering. The products must meet the same regulatory requirements and safety and labeling standards as other foods regulated by the FDA, and should be labeled as “not bioengineered,” “not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology,” or simply, “not genetically engineered.”
  • Non-GMO Project: The Non-GMO Project created a voluntary labeling system they refer to as “product verification.” Companies can partner with the Non-GMO Project and have ingredient, facility and label reviews for their product, and once they pass the tests, will receive a Certificate of Compliance verification mark from the Non-GMO project. The products are reviewed annually for continuation in the verification program. There is a fee to be verified, which is dependent upon the number of products there are and if those products contain any high-risk ingredients.

As of now the question, “Do Genetically Modified Foods Have to be Labeled in the US?” remains uncertain. Yes, they will be labeled soon. But they aren’t just yet. And once they are, consumers will still have to question what ingredients are exempt and what the labels are actually telling us.

How do you think genetically modified foods should be labeled in the US? What are your thoughts about the ingredients that could possibly be exempt? Is the voluntary labeling movement helpful for you, or making everything more confusing? Let’s start talking!