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, we want to know if GMOs are in the products we buy. And the first place we look for that information is in the label.

In previous discussions, I’ve shared with you that I’ve noticed inconsistent labeling among the products I see at the grocery store. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. So it begs the question: Do genetically modified foods have to be labeled in the U.S.?

The answer? Yes, but not yet.

The reason behind this ambiguous answer is that regulating the labeling of genetically modified foods has been a complicated, years-long process.
Getting everyone to agree that consumers need a simple, uniform, comprehensive labeling system is one thing. Getting everyone to agree on the details of that labeling system is another.

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 is not as comprehensive or obvious as some may have hoped. As a result of this law, the USDA wrote a proposed rule document that, in over 50 sections, provides 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.

The key word here is proposed. This proposed rule is a work in progress, as implementation has been delayed while everyone weighs in about what types of food should be covered and the types of labels food makers should use. You can read the proposed rule document here, but be prepared — it’s 74 pages long.

Some major details need to be ironed out before this law can be enforced in 2020.

Here are some highlights from the proposed law that you might find interesting:

  • The label will use the term “bioengineered” instead of “genetically modified” as they feel more people would recognize and understand it’s meaning.
  • If a food is made with some refined genetically modified sugars and oils, or if that particular ingredient falls below a predetermined threshold, that food product may be exempt from labeling.
  • Products containing ingredients from mixed sources that were less than five percent genetically modified by weight might be exempt from labeling.
  • 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.
  • Subtitle F of the rule document specifies that certain foods under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) will be considered absent of any bioengineering in food.

It’s interesting that, as demonstrated in bullet points two and three above, even once the law is enforced, it’s possible that a tiny bit of GMOs can slip through the cracks. And as I mentioned in the “Are Organic Foods GMO free?” blog, even the best-intentioned organic farmers can fall victim to cross contamination. What’s the point of labeling something “not bioengineered” if even a smidgen of GMOs are present?

Although the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard is not enforced just yet, some companies are voluntarily placing labels on their non-genetically engineered foods nationwide. This is why you will see inconsistent labeling such as these on your food products:

  • 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 product will 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.

So the answer to the question, “Do Genetically Modified Foods Have to be Labeled in the US?” remains uncertain. Yes, they are supposed to be labeled. But they aren’t just yet. And once they are, there’s a big question mark around what the labels will look like, which foods will be included, and what ingredients could be exempt.

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!