Consumers can look for two new business brands, one for bioengineered products and one for a bioengineered derivative brand. The USDA also provides a label with a phone number that consumers can call or text to receive more information about BE foods. Some brands may choose to include a QR code on the packaging, which consumers can scan to receive an online disclosure of the product’s BE food ingredients.
The NBFDS, originally announced in 2018, defines BE foods as those that contain “discoverable genetic material that has been modified through certain laboratory techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
According to the USDA’s current list of bioengineered foods, only a few products on the market are bioengineered, including some apples, canola, corn, eggplant, papaya, pineapple, potatoes, salmon, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets.
For years, advocacy groups have advocated labeling to promote transparency in the food system. But several of these advocacy groups, including the GMO Project, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the Center for Food Safety are raising concerns that the new rule doesn’t go far enough.
They worry that the rules leave many highly processed ingredients, derived from genetically modified crops, as exempt from mandatory disclosure. These include soft drinks, refined sugar, and cooking oil. According to the standard, if the soda contains corn syrup sourced from BE corn, and the corn syrup lacks “detectable genetic material,” corn syrup alone does not allow mandatory detection.
To enhance transparency, Gregory Jaffe, CSPI’s Biotechnology Project Director, suggests the USDA should make disclosure of bioengineered “derived” ingredients mandatory, not voluntary. Without the mandatory disclosure, “consumers may not understand that these products may be the same in terms of ingredients that come from bioengineering,” Jaffe told Food Tank.
A USDA spokesperson told Food Tank that “the standard is designed to give consumers more information about their food.” According to the USDA, consumers should note that the labels are “for marketing purposes and do not convey any information about the health, safety, or environmental attributes of this food compared to its non-bioengineered counterparts.”
The NBFDS also excludes animal feed, pet food, and personal care products, as well as some foods for direct human consumption, such as meat, poultry, and eggs, from the BE Label Act. The new standard also excludes food products that list meat, poultry or eggs as the first or second ingredient after water, broth or broth.
According to Jaffe, this provision of the law appears to promote greater transparency, as it significantly increases the number of products that could have been classified under previous state laws. But the second aspect of this provision, which mandates labeling of meat, poultry or eggs only when listed as a third ingredient, “would be confusing to consumers and could be seen as not increasing transparency,” Jaffe tells Food Tank.
The Non-GMO Project also worries that relying on QR codes to convey additional information about BE detections will create access barriers. A study from Deloitte on Technology and Consumer Access to Information about BE Foods found that many consumers face technological challenges that prevent them from obtaining information through electronic or digital detection methods. According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of Americans do not currently own a smartphone. The Pew Center also reported that 23 percent of Americans still lack access to adequate home broadband service.
As manufacturers and retailers change the way BE foods are disclosed on their packaging, the standard is also introducing new guidelines for them to validate their claims about BE foods. The standard lists three ways companies show the USDA that their food products do not contain GMOs or are exempt from disclosure. Companies can keep records to verify that food comes from a non-bioengineered crop, including foods certified under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. They can also provide evidence that foods have undergone a refining process that renders the modified genetic material undetectable. Or companies can keep test records that prove the absence of genetically modified material.