As of January 1, 2022, foods that have been genetically modified—previously labeled as "genetically engineered" or containing "genetically modified organisms," or "GMO"—are receiving a new look. In an effort to unite the different labeling systems for genetically modified foods, and to supersede state-specific regulations on label disclosures for these items, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is now requiring these foods to be labeled as "bioengineered." They may also come with a QR code or phone number to help consumers find more information online or by phone.
The changes are part of USDA's National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which went into effect in January 2020. Previously, labeling requirements for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients were handled on a state-by-state basis, but the new rule aims to avoid this patchwork of state labeling regulations. At present, only a few foods on the market contain modified genes, including apple, canola, corn, eggplant, papaya, pineapple, potato and salmon. Most vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, and beans do not have genetically modified versions.
The new rule requires food manufacturers, retailers, and importers to disclose if their foods contain bioengineered ingredients, while the terms "genetically engineered" and "GMO" will no longer be accepted on labels. However, other types of official certifications such as "Non-GMO Project Verified" and "USDA Organic" will still be allowed. Dietary supplement manufacturers must also comply with the new labeling rule, although restaurants and other foodservice businesses are not required to follow it.
Some food companies have complained about the timing of the new rule, saying that instituting such a change in the middle of a pandemic-driven supply chain crisis is burdensome to the industry, which is already under intense pressure to deliver products to consumers safely and in a timely manner. USDA says that the "bioengineered" food labeling standard is designed to deliver necessary information to consumers while minimizing costs to companies.
USDA has built in some room for error in the standard, setting a threshold at 5 percent for the "unintended" presence of bioengineered ingredients. This means that highly processed foods made from genetically engineered crops, such as candies, cooking oils, and sodas, would be exempt from the rule if the presence of bioengineered ingredients is less than 5 percent. By contrast, the EU's standard for the "unintended" presence of bioengineered ingredients is set at 0.9 percent.
The new rule also does not cover products that list meat, poultry, or eggs as their first ingredient or their second ingredient after water, broth, or stock. Such products include some frozen prepared foods (e.g., meat lasagna) that may contain genetically modified ingredients without disclosure.