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Ins and Outs of the New GMO (BE) Labeling

New GMO Regulations
New GMO Regulations

GMOs is a hot topic. And if you own a food product or beverage, you’ll want to pay attention to these new proposals, because they could effect you and your product business.

In recent years, savvy health-conscious consumers have been asking what is in their food and putting pressure on the government to take action to create GMO regulations and clear up confusion for consumers. In 2016, the federal government passed a law requiring labeling of all GMOs in food.

 

So What Exactly is a GMO?

First things first: what is everyone talking about when they say GMO? The Non-GMO Project describes a GMO as a species that has undergone any type of gene/DNA modification.

 

GMO goes to BE

In determining the process of how to enforce this new law, the USDA created a new proposal the National Bio-engineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) to give people more information about GMOs and the foods they are in. The new standard throws out the term GMO altogether.

 

GMO and BE aren’t the same.

BE only refers to foods that use a process called transgenesis and have been made by splicing foreign genes from one species into another. However, with gene-editing tools like CRISPR, many experts feel that definition is too limited. Groups such as the Non-GMO Project classify foods that have been gene-edited, with or without transplanted genes, to be GMO. Meaning the current GMO-free certifications thoroughly covers all the bases over the newly proposed narrow BE label.

It instead uses the term “bio-engineered”, coined by Congress, and describes bio-engineered (BE) products as being:

  • Food A – food that has been modified by having some of its own DNA/genes subtracted or duplicated
  • Food B – food that has been modified by the addition of another species’ DNA/genes

Food A refers to food with that has been modified with its own DNA. This type of modification is considered to be more natural, because it occurs in nature through genetic mutations.

Food B refers to food with DNA that has been altered with genes from a different species. These foods are considered to be “less natural”, because in nature, genes from different species don’t naturally interact.

Also under the proposed rule, the USDA will create two lists of BE foods:

  • Commodity crops (almost always GMO)—including canola, field corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. For instance 92% of US corn is bioengineered, so high fructose corn syrup, breakfast cereal, would be labeled.
  • Less common GMO crops—when apples, sweet corn, papaya, potatoes and summer squash are in the ingredients, a product label would state “may contain” bioengineered food.

 

What are the Specifics of NBFDS?

NBFDS will require all food manufacturers and consumer product labeling companies to inform shoppers about bio-engineered (BE) food and ingredients in one of three ways:

  • On-package text
  • USDA-sanctioned BE symbol
  • Electronic QR code on the package

Foods that are commonly modified will be labeled in any form. For example, corn is one of the most widely modified products, so any related products, such as chips or cereal, would also be labeled.

Less commonly modified foods, such as apples or sweet potatoes, could potentially have labels that read “may contain bio-engineered foods”. Even if there is a slim chance a product has been modified, BE-uncertain products need to be identified under this new standard.

 

Exemptions from NBFDS

Under this standard, there are quite a few exceptions to the labeling regulations. These products or product categories are potentially exempt from BE labeling regulations:

  • Foods with meat as the main ingredient
  • Previously certified-organic foods
  • Foods from very small food manufacturers
  • Highly refined sugars and oils (*if the refinement process screens out modified DNA)
  • Products made with ingredients from mixed sources that were less than 5% genetically modified (*by weight)

 

The Pros

Since the USDA came out with the proposed regulations, there has been a lot of support from consumers. Many consumers see this as a step toward greater transparency. The greater transparency would then lead to improved consumers’ rights by informing them about what they are eating, how their food is made, and where it comes from. The result of this? Savvier, more informed consumers.

However, not all of the support comes without concern.

 

The Cons

Some think these regulations and exemptions will just create even more confusion around genetically-modified organisms. Specifically, critics cite the name change from GMO to BE as the main point of concern. The term GMO has been around for years and has become familiar to consumers, while BE is a new and unfamiliar term with a slightly different meaning. This abrupt switch could understandably puzzle some shoppers.

Another point of concern is the option for food companies to disclose BE ingredients only through the use of electronic QR codes. Many consumers don’t use product QR codes for many reasons, including lack of understanding or comfort with QR technology. So, if that was the only way a BE advisory was expressed for certain products, many consumers would be unaware of products’ positive BE status. Because of this, critics make the argument that QR code BE labeling takes advantage of consumers.

 

The Takeaway

Whether you champion NBFDS or express doubts about it, if you have a food brand you’ll want to keep your eye on the changes coming to food labels across America. With that being said, there is no real justification behind the name change, as GMO foods and BE foods have both had their natural DNA modified in one of the two processes from above. While the government has warmly embraced these new regulations, it will remain to be seen just how well they are received by consumers. If you want to submit a comment regarding this regulation, go here.

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