The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard requires some food producers to put labels on some products that contain GMOs. Unfortunately, there are two glaring problems with this law that mean consumers will still not be able to tell what is in the food they are eating. Let’s take a closer look at disclosure options and exemptions under the NBFDS.
As a reminder, GMO foods won’t say they contain GMOs, they will say they are “bioengineered food.” However, many products will not even say that. A text disclosure is just one of four main options available. Food manufacturers have a few choices when it comes to disclosing GMO content:
- Use a text-only disclosure including “bioengineered food,” “contains a bioengineered food ingredient,” and “derived from bioengineering.” “Bioengineered food” means that all ingredients in a product are or could be derived from GMOs. “Contains a bioengineered food ingredient” means a product contains at least one GMO ingredient, and other ingredients may or not be made with GMOs. “Derived from bioengineering” is a special voluntary disclosure.
- Use one of these symbols instead of a text disclosure:
These symbols say “bioengineered” but they do not explain what that means or how to find more information about it.
- Use an electronic or digital link. Food manufacturers can put a QR code, digital watermark, or another scannable element on their packaging along with text such as “scan here for more food information.” This type of disclosure must be accompanied by a 24-hour phone number consumers can call to receive the same information. These types of disclosures do not have to say “bioengineered” on the package at all. This option presents several challenges. Scanning a package requires consumers to have a smartphone with them at the grocery store. It also requires them to have an app capable of scanning. In many cases, such scanning apps either cost money or come with confusing advertisements. The USDA’s own study on the feasibility of digital disclosures noted that nearly all participants experienced trouble using their phone to scan a digital link.
- Use text messaging. Brands can choose to put a phone number and instructions to send an SMS text message to that number for information. Food manufacturers cannot charge a fee for texting this service, but consumers who pay per text or have limited texting plans may still accrue fees from their cell phone provider.
Both text messaging and digital link methods are discriminatory. These methods are particularly unfair to people who face barriers to accessing a smartphone and data plan, such as people from low-income backgrounds, people who are senior citizens, and residents of rural areas.
While the telephone call option mitigates this to some extent because it does not require a smartphone, the Non-GMO Project does not believe it is feasible for consumers to make a phone call for each item they consider purchasing, particularly if they are shopping with children. This option also disproportionately impacts Americans living with disabilities that make using a telephone difficult.
Electronic methods of disclosure are discriminatory, inconvenient, and confusing. If consumers can’t intuitively understand what the disclosure means, then nothing is really being disclosed.
While the disclosure methods are confusing and burdensome, the exemptions allowed under the NBFDS are even more perplexing. With all of these loopholes, just a fraction of products that contain GMOs will be labeled at all. Animal feed, pet food, and personal care products are not covered at all. Only products that contain detectable GMO DNA will be labeled—this is a huge problem because so many processed foods contain untestable inputs such as beet sugar and canola oil.
Meat and eggs are exempt, as are products in which meat or egg is the first ingredient. It’s important to understand that animal feed is not only unlabeled as a product, but it is out of scope for product evaluation as well. Conversely, when the Non-GMO Project verifies dairy, eggs, or meat it means the animal those products came from ate a non-GMO diet. If you choose to eat dairy, eggs, meat, or other animal products, choosing items that are Non-GMO Project Verified is the single biggest way you can help protect a non-GMO future.
All of these exemptions make it impossible it know whether a product lacks a disclosure because it is non-GMO or because there is an applicable loophole. There are so many exemptions—and exceptions within exemptions—that the average person can’t possibly keep track of what is covered.
Take the Quiz
To illustrate this point, let’s look at a few examples of products. In each example, assume that all the bolded ingredients are derived from GMOs.
All of these soups contain GMOs, but only one will be labeled under the NBFDS. Can you tell which one?
- Soup ingredients: chicken stock, corn, chicken, celery, carrots,
- Soup ingredients: chicken stock, chicken, corn, celery, carrots,
- Soup ingredients: vegetable broth (water, carrots, celery, paprika), chicken, corn, celery, carrots
In the list above, only number one would be subject to disclosure. Multi-ingredient foods with meat as the first ingredient are exempt (except for seafood, rabbit, and venison) even when the animal ate GMO feed. Water, stock, and broth don’t count. This means soup number two does not get a label because it has chicken as the second ingredient after stock, even though the very next ingredient is GMO corn. Soup number three does not get a label for the same reason even though it lists the non-exempt ingredients in the broth separately. Soup number one does get a label because it has corn as the second ingredient and chicken as the third.
Let’s try another. All three of these frozen, breaded fish nuggets contain GMOs. Which one would get a BE label?
- Fish product ingredients: minced catfish, water, corn meal, corn flour, salt, baking powder, paprika, canola oil, flavoring
- Fish product ingredients: minced pollock, wheat flour, water, canola oil, egg, cornstarch, onion powder, flavoring
- Fish product ingredients: minced chicken, minced pollock, minced haddock, minced cod, enriched flour, canola oil, water, yellow corn flour, sugar, yeast, natural flavor
In the list above, only number two would be subject to disclosure. Products with seafood as the first ingredient are subject to labeling—except catfish, so fish product number one is exempt. Fish product number three contains three types of seafood, which is subject to labeling, but it contains more chicken filler than it does pollock, so it is exempt too. Only the all-pollock fish nugget would be labeled—but only if the GMO DNA in the cornstarch or flavoring can be detected after processing.
One more quiz. Again, all of these chocolate candies contain GMOs. Can you tell which one would be labeled with a BE disclosure?
- Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, milkfat, soy lecithin, canola oil, vanillin, artificial flavor
- Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, cacao, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, emulsifier, artificial flavor
- Chocolate bar ingredients: sugar, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, soy lecithin, natural vanilla
It’s impossible to tell for certain, but probably none of these. All three chocolates contain refined GMO ingredients. The sugar and canola oil can’t be tested for GMOs; there is not enough intact DNA. The soy lecithin could possibly contain detectable GMO DNA in some circumstances, but not in others. The NBFDS only requires labeling if the GMO DNA is detectable in the finished product. Unfortunately, this policy just keeps consumers guessing.
The Non-GMO Project thinks you deserve better.
These examples make it painfully clear that this law does not deliver the transparency American citizens have been demanding for decades. Most people do not walk around with an encyclopedic knowledge of GMO risks and regulatory details. They certainly cannot tell if an ingredient has detectable GMO DNA just by looking at an ingredient panel—no one can. How could anyone ever know if a product lacks a BE disclosure because it is truly non-GMO or because it falls into one of the many exempt categories in this law?
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard doesn’t label all types of GMOs, but the Non-GMO Project still does because conscientious consumers like you demand it. We will continue to listen to shoppers and provide the trustworthy labeling that the USDA has failed to offer. Unlike the NBFDS, the Non-GMO Project Standard includes all products of biotechnology, not just the convenient ones. It follows ingredients back to their source rather than exempting processed ingredients, because the Non-GMO Project knows you can’t start with a GMO ingredient and process it into something that somehow isn’t the product of genetic engineering.
Non-GMO Project Verified will remain the most trustworthy and accessible way for consumers to avoid GMOs. The Non-GMO Project will continue to support consumers by offering GMO transparency under North America’s most rigorous standard for GMO avoidance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Check out these FAQs to learn more about the National Bioengineered Food Standard and what it means for you. Have other questions? Post them in the comments or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why does the USDA use the term “bioengineered” or “BE”?
The Non-GMO Project believes the USDA chose “bioengineered” rather than the widely-understood “GMO” in order to distance labeled products from the overwhelming consumer rejection of GMO foods. While nearly all consumer are aware of “GMOs,” bioengineered is a new term that does not even appear in the USDA’s Agricultural Biotechnology Glossary.
When will I start seeing bioengineered disclosures on food?
Some products will start including a BE symbol or disclosure in 2020. Food producers are not required to comply with this law or label their products until 2022.
If a product doesn’t have a USDA BE seal, does that mean it is non-GMO?
No. The USDA’s labeling law includes many exemptions, meaning many foods derived from GMOs will not be labeled. For example, nearly all heavily-refined ingredients such as beet sugar and canola oil will be exempt. Many products that contain meat or eggs will be exempt. Foods produced by certain small manufacturers will be exempt. Food that comes from animals on a GMO diet will not be labeled. Pet food, animal feed, alcohol, household goods, and personal care items are completely exempt. Never assume that the absence of a BE disclosure means the absence of GMOs.
Will the NBFDS label animal products that come from animals who were fed GMO animal feed?
No, animal feed will not be evaluated under the NBFDS. GMO animal feed sold as a finished product will not be subject to the NBFDS either.
If a product contains meat, will it have to disclose GMOs?
Meats and eggs are exempt. Some multi-ingredient foods that contain meat will require a disclosure but some will be exempt. If a food has multiple ingredients and meat (but not seafood) or egg is the first ingredient, it is exempt even if other ingredients are GMOs. If meat or egg is the second ingredient and the first ingredient is not water or stock, the product would be subject to the NBFDS.
There are many exemptions for meat and egg products; do not assume that the absence of a BE disclosure means the absence of GMOs.
Will foods made with new GMO techniques such as CRISPR or TALEN require a BE label?
Many foods made with new genetic engineering techniques will not require a disclosure, but some will. The NBFDS looks at detectable modified DNA in the final food product and is not interested in the methods that went into the genetic engineering. It is not yet possible to test for GMO content in many products of new genetic engineering techniques. If modified DNA cannot be detected in a product, it will not require disclosure.
Will foods with processed or refined ingredients have a BE disclosure?
The NBDFS evaluates food based on whether it has detectable modified DNA. Many processed ingredients (e.g., canola oil, beet sugar) do not typically contain detectable modified DNA because the processing methods damaged or removed the DNA. Such products and ingredients will not be labeled under the NBFDS.
What is the difference between “bioengineered food,” “contains a bioengineered food ingredient,” and “derived from bioengineering?”
All three possible text disclosures mean a food contains at least one GMO ingredient; the difference is how many ingredients might be GMOs and whether those ingredients or their manufacturer are covered under the NBFDS.
- “Bioengineered food” applies to single-ingredient GMO foods and foods for which every ingredient is a GMO risk. For example, a single ear of GMO sweet corn or a canned soup with three GMO ingredients and two ingredients that are on the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods but may or may not actually be GMO.
- “Contains a bioengineered food ingredient” applies to multi-ingredient foods that have some ingredients which are or could be GMOs and some ingredients that are not on the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods. For example, a cheese alternative that contains GMO soy and also olive oil (which could not be from a GMO.)
- “Derived from bioengineering” is for voluntary labeling in situations where an ingredient (e.g., refined canola oil) is derived from a GMO but does not require a disclosure under the NBFDS. This voluntary text claim may also be used by exempt entities such as very small food manufacturers who wish to make a disclosure.
Why are eggplant, apple, salmon, and pineapple not on the Non-GMO Project High-Risk list?
The Non-GMO Project does not currently consider these inputs to be high risk because they are not widely commercially available. The Non-GMO Project feels it would be burdensome and unreasonable to require food producers to pay to test their eggplant, for example, because GMO eggplant is so uncommon in the United States. While the Non-GMO Project uses a risk assessment matrix to determine when an input should be considered “high risk,” the USDA simply lists foods that may be bioengineered.
How do I tell if personal care items have GMOs in them?
The NBFDS is limited to some food and supplement products; it does not label GMOs in personal care products, clothing, cleaning products, or packaging.
Does the NBFDS label GMOs in pet food?
No. Most commercial pet foods contain GMOs and animal products from animals fed a GMO diet. To keep GMOs out of your pet’s food bowl, you’ll need to look for the Non-GMO Project Verified mark.
What are the rules for QR codes, text message disclosures, and phone line disclosures?
Brands can choose to use electronic methods to disclose GMOs instead of a symbol or plain text disclosure. If they choose a telephone number, it must be available 24/7. The manufacturer cannot charge you for text messages, but your cell carrier still can. If the manufacturer chooses a web page, the disclosure must be on the first page and it cannot contain advertisements or promotional materials.
What if I don’t have a cell phone, a data plan, or access to wifi to use electronic disclosures?
Unfortunately, some people who lack access to technology are unfairly discriminated against as part of this law. The best way to be sure you are choosing non-GMO products is still to look for the Non-GMO Project Verified mark.
The NBFDS says that electronic links may not ”collect, analyze, or sell any personally identifiable information about consumers or the devices of consumers.” However, it also says that if such information must be collected, it “must be deleted immediately and not used for any other purpose.”