Op-ed: 3 Reasons to be Concerned about the USDA’s Proposed GMO Labeling Rules | Civil Eats

Op-ed: 3 Reasons to be Concerned about the USDA’s Proposed GMO Labeling Rules

Advocates say the rules raise a number of red flags, and could end up causing more confusion than clarity.

gmo labeling symbol and fresh produce

Food labels help consumers quickly discern whether their food contains gluten, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, or MSG. This same right to know should be clearly offered for foods that are genetically engineered (“GE” or “GMO”), especially since polls consistently show that Americans overwhelmingly believe they have the right to know if their food is GE, with roughly 90 percent regularly voicing support for mandatory GMO labeling as a result of concerns about health, food safety, and environmental impacts from GE foods.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) long-awaited proposed regulations for GMO labeling on food are so surprising.

Released in May, the regulations come out of a 2016 law signed by President Obama prohibiting existing state GE labeling laws, such as Vermont’s, which required on-package mandatory labeling, and instead created a nationwide standard. Instead of proposing straightforward rules, the 100-page USDA document presents a range of alternatives on a number of key issues, and leaves a handful of questions open for comment, to be decided in the final rule.

For many consumers and influencers in the food movement, the federal GE labeling law has offered a ray of hope for transparency about what’s in our food and how it’s produced. After the 2016 law was passed, food journalist Mark Bittman wrote that the law “could stir a revolution” of folks wanting to know more about their food, including whether antibiotics or pesticides were used in the production of those foods.

However, for those of us advocating for true transparency of foods produced using genetic engineering, the new USDA rules raise a number of big red flags. Here are the three ways the rules could end up causing more confusion than clarity.

1. They Propose Using “Bioengineered,” and the Acronym BE Instead of “Genetically Engineered” or GMO.

The term GMO has been used by farmers, food manufacturers, retailers, and the government for over a decade and is widely familiar to many. The National Organic Program, proposed by the USDA in 2000, excluded the use of GMOs in organic production and handling. The Non-GMO Project, founded in 2007, tests food products for the presence of GMOs and has certified thousands of food products in the marketplace.

The USDA proposes only allowing the term “bioengineered,” or “BE,” on products produced using genetic engineering, and does not allow other more well-known terms—a scenario that would likely confuse many consumers.

Government-mandated speech such as food labeling should be presented in a neutral way. The 2016 law requires that for purposes of the regulations, “a bioengineered food … shall not be treated as safer than, or not as safe as, a non-bioengineered counterpart.” Yet the symbols proposed to be used on packaging include an image of a sun, and another that uses the letters BE to create a smiley-face—both project an image that these foods are healthy and beneficial for the environment.

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gmo labels

Do these symbols say GMO to you?


2. They Propose the Use of Digital QR Codes Instead of On-Package Text Labeling.

The agency proposes that QR codes (encoded images on a package that must be scanned with a smartphone) be allowed as a substitute for clear, legible language on the package. In 2017, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) forced the public disclosure of the USDA’s own study on the efficacy of this labeling, which showed it would not provide adequate disclosure to millions of Americans.

Among other things, the study concluded that consumers are: unfamiliar with QR codes or do not know that digital links contain food information; may not have equipment capable of scanning digital links on their own; may be unable to connect to broadband, or connect at a speed that is so slow that they cannot load information; and that technological challenges disproportionately impact low-income earners, rural residents, and Americans over the age of 65. By not mandating on-package text labeling, the proposed rule discriminates against more than 100 million Americans who do not have adequate access to this technology.

3. It Proposes that Highly Refined Foods such as Oils and Candy be Exempt from Labeling.

Another big question left unanswered in the proposed rules is whether or not genetically engineered foods such as cooking oil, candy, and soda will get labeled. These are ingredients that are typically derived from GE crops, but they’ve been processed in such a way that the GE content may or may not be detectable by a genetic test in the final product. This puts labeling on thousands of GE products in question.

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In addition to these big three issues, the USDA’s proposal also seeks comments on how to deal with newer forms of genetic engineering—such as synthetic biology, gene-editing, and CRISPR—and whether or not to include foods produced using this technology.

The USDA will be accepting public comments on the proposed rule until July 3, 2018.

Rebecca Spector is West Coast Director at the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco, CA, where she works on policy initiatives and public outreach campaigns at the state and federal level to promote healthy, safe and sustainable food systems. She has been working in the environmental and agricultural sector for more than 20 years and holds an M.S. in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. Read more >

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  1. Lonnie Morris
    Stop lobby money.The food we eat is more important than corporate and congress profits.All food should be labeled GMO or NonGMO
    • Bob
      What about foods that have undergone mutation breeding? It's been happening since the 1930's, should we label all of that as well?
  2. Phyllis Hilenski
    Ive had 3 cancers and I do inspect whats in my food packageing . I have the legal right to know what's In my food. I have the right to make the choices that I make to whether I want to eat something or not. Do not changed to BE - When GMO is established. Everything should be labled!!!
    It doesn't mean that I don't buy some products but I just HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW...........
    • Robert Wager
      I am sorry for your health issues but GE is a breeding method not an ingredient. A BE label tells you nothing about the contents of your food.
    • Ali
      They have a Really Strong foothold in the government, thats for sure.
      Where is Democracy when 90% of people want something and this is what they get.
  3. Dr D
    "especially since polls consistently show that Americans overwhelmingly believe they have the right to know if their food is GE"
    The problem here is that people do not understand what GMOs are. There's a survey that shows people are wary of food with DNA in it. Because people are morons.
    There is nothing inherently wrong with GMOs. There are ZERO studies that show adverse health effects from GMOs. Some of what GMOs can be used for (e.g. Roundup ready crops) can be quibble with, but that's like saying "We need to ban tractors because some maniac ran over a litter of kittens"
    • Robert Wager
      Agriculture is defined as the manipulation of the DNA of plants and animals to suit our needs. Therefore virtually everything you have ever eaten is modified at the genetic level.
  4. Kevin C Patti
    All i'm reading up there is "I don't understand how science works"
  5. Robert Wager
    And polls show >80% of people want food that contains DNA to be labelled. Using ignorance about food to drive sales via fear-based labelling schemes is not in the publics interest.
  6. I don't want the labeling to change, I want the GE and GMO to remain the only labels to let us in the U.S.A. separate the items being sold as genetically modified.
  7. Gary Abel
    I'm totally against the new regulations on GMO labeling. I'd also like to state I believe packaging should be labeled clearly that it contains Genetically modified ingredients. I believe genetic engineering should be stopped.
    • Eric Bjerregaard
      And you have no logical reason for your desire to stop Genetic engineering. And apparently you have no concern for the well being of diabetics.
  8. Carolyn Zarsky
    I am curious as to how much and whom received funds, directly or indirectly, to obfuscate and confuse consumers. I suppose so long as Monsanto and factory farmers are happy who cares if the health and additional stress on consumers are further challenged. Taxpayers pay a lot for FDA protection but the fox is guarding the hen-house.
    • Informant
      If you would like to boycott deceptive labelling, you should worry more about the term “Natural” than GMO. And do some research from respected researchers that study and provide strictly and forcefully peer reviewed content looking from all angles how GM crops interact with humans. Give the readers digest version a try: https://www.nap.edu/resource/23395/GE-crops-report-brief.pdf
  9. Antoinette Roberts-Brown
    The consumers should know what foods are being created in lab or pose a threat to our health, and businesses shouldn't be allow to disguise products or hide them under deceptive labeling. We will boycott businesses that hide the truth because our health depends on know what in the heck we're eating!!
  10. Nancie
    Government needs to stop treating Americans as if we haven't got a clue what's going on. Put the information we want on packaging in terms EVERYONE can understand CLEARLY and let us make our own informed decisions. We all know you'll bail out your GMO companies anyway, just like you did with banks and the auto industry, should enough people opt to put their money into food sources they trust more than your "BE" products.
  11. Melissa L Yee
    None of the options are acceptable. A bioengineering label with a smiley face or green implies that this food is healthy and nutritious, which it is not, considering all the research that has been done in the last 25 years showing that the long term effects are risky and harmful to children and the environment. Using this label is similar to the tactic of Bayer taking over the Monsanto company and removing the name from sight to hide all the damage Monsanto has done since its inception in 1901. Poison is poison, and genetically engineered foods are not natural or healthy.
    • Eric Bjerregaard
      Got any proof for that?
  12. Eric Bjerregaard
    The ignorance of some in the general public is not a reason to compel speech. As there is no safety issue involved. there is no reason to label.
  13. Shawn
    The term "bio-engineered" is inaccurate and grossly misleading. It disguises any connection to the tampering of genetic code. Gmos are engineered biologically yes, by humans. What would be more appropriate would be labeling these foods-- these food-based products "anthro-engineered" and "anthro-sprayed with toxins". This is not biology.

    Further what consumers want to know, and producers (of livestock, for example) need to know, without question is this: have their foods and feedstock (again regarding what we feed to the animals we raise) been sprayed with cocktails of _____icides: synthetic chemicals that kill: fungicides, pesticides, etc. And I would dare to include synthetic fertilizers which are used in concert with bioicide programs, because of their detrimental impact to our waterways, our natural aquaculture.
    I have taken to trusting that if a label does not say USDA organic, NonGMO verified, or Demeter certified, then it has been contaminated with these toxic chemicals. We are what we eat and must know in order to avoid eating poison.
    Who is the ignorant bureaucrat that thought this system up. The USDA is supposed to insure produce safety for consumers not try and hide the quality of produce from the buying public. We the people need agencies on our side. Maybe the USDA has become an advocate for big, inhumane farms and given the consumer the finger.
  15. Linda Smith
    I want clear, simple labeling on all products. This new proposal is deceptive and complicated. Make the labeling simple--it's either GMO, sprayed with pesticides, or organic. I am over 65 but I can assure you, I will take the time to scan every product I purchase and will not be forced to use GMO products even if you are implying they are perfectly safe. However, many seniors do not use a smart phone and this proposal is very unfair to a large number of people.
  16. Elizabeth Cooper
    In 2018, a large company with a strong lobby and good lawyers can choose to deal with foods in ways that benefit the company financially, often at the expense of the consumer. In this case Monsanto wants consumers to buy GMO'd foods, and now the USDA, which is supposed to protect consumers wants to use Digital QR codes instead of on package labeling. This makes checking to see if the packaged foods are GMO'd much more difficult . If consumers are confused, shopping with 2 or 3 small children, or don't have their phones in their hands, they might find using the Digital QR codes just too difficult. This looks to me like benefit for Monsanto, at a cost to the consumers' right to know what's in their foods.
    • Silvina Pestoni
      What do you mean Monsanto?? Who are they? (sarcatic). I have heard that after the merger of Monsanto and Bayer they are trying to make the name Monsanto disappear since it has so many bad associations with the public they will use Bayer or rename it. Consumer beware!!! Lots of natural and organic brands are being purchased by Mega Corporations that in general have been producing foods in a very different manner (such as Nestle, just one example). I bet you they will work hard to relax the fairly stricts standards of organics to suit their greed. It's sad that people think it's ok to make money by harming other human beings.....
  17. Penny
    QE codes are ridiculous and unacceptable. This must be clearly labeled on the package and clearly communicated to the public!
  18. Michael Kemler
    I want big. #24 font. in bright orange, with black outline, in a prominent place on the label, stating GMO on all genetically modified products. no exceptions.
  19. Karen Waddell
    we have food allergies and multiple chemical sensitivities, to the extreme. The labels need to say what is in their container. anything not fully disclosed label might kill us. Smart phones don't go to the grocery store, people do. People buy groceries and eat food.
  20. Silvina Pestoni
    Deceit, it stinks ! BE (Bogus Emblem). A happy face and a sun! They are so clever! two of the symbols even I respond to without any conscious thought of course! At first glance it registers (in the brain) as something positive, happy, natural....GMO is none of those things. What people do for money just keeps amazing
    me! (in a bad way).
  21. Thanks for getting the word out. I agree that all these are issues, but you missed what I consider to be the most important problem of all- how they want to define GE/GMOs. They only want to include transgenic processes. The wave of the future is with the new techniques which may or may not be transgenics. It won't matter what they call it, won't matter if there is a smiley face or not if the new techniques are not included in the definition to begin with.

    But there's more- If we don't have the same definition of GE that the WHO and WTO do, then our trade will be impacted. We need to follow the same definition (of codex alimentarius) they do, which includes the new techniques.
  22. jeffrey h. earle
    keep it simple stupid.another way to hide the truth.pesticides kill and the unnatural alteration of food for profit leads to a slow unnatural death for all life ,including us.
    Every food should be labeled no matter how small a % is GMO, BE, or whatever you want to call it. You think we're all so stupid that we will not find out what these arbitrary names mean? We don't want to buy any of it so no matter what you label it, we will find out and not buy. Maybe then they'll stop growing, manufacturing it. STOP - just leave food alone. And that goes for franken-fish as well as hormones, etc. in meat.
  24. Mary Mangan
    Super helpful piece, thanks so much. It crystallizes everything wrong with the labels. Here's how I'm including it in my comments:

    "Recently, the food magazine “Civil Eats” stated, “Government-mandated speech such as food labeling should be presented in a neutral way.” We actually agree on this. ”Bioengineered” is orders of magnitude more neutral and scientifically inclined that the informal “GMO” acronym, which has been used by activists to pollute the discourse. Searches for GMOs reveal extensive bogus imagery including syringe tomatoes and photoshopped crocoducks and fish-tomatoes. Rhetoric includes “God Moves Over” and “Get More Obese” and “Genocidally Motivated Organization”. (Images are screen captures from a recent Russian propaganda anti-GMO film, “The Peril on Your Plate”, which ran in May 2018 on the Russian outlet RT. "

    I will also include how anti-GMO groups implore people to use their phone apps to make purchases.

    Of course, explaining the science on the refined products is biology 101. That will be a piece of GMO cake!
    • John Lucia
      Mary Mangan, your blog is dishonest and full of association fallacies. You didn't directly condemn the sun and smiley face either, just used the neutrality bit to claim hypocrisy. Maybe you should get a life and stop misinforming the public before you project your problems onto Civil Eats here.
  25. I strongly object to the new labeling of GMO continuing foods as BE. The public will not understand the change. We have become familiar with the GMO label and it should remain. Those of us concerned about what Roundup/glyphosate is doing to the soil and adjacent organic farms need to know on which foods is has been used.
  26. Tanya Theobald
    This makes moms think GMO aka Round Up is safe. Shame on you!
  27. In addition, it is time to discuss exemptions. The USDA should include these in their proposal. The non-GMO project has raised a flag over our entire food system. Much of this is questionable science. BUT, they are very interested in getting their fees for certification, rather than exempting products that are exempt elsewhere in the world. the Project is going after certifications for water, honey and other products that have no manipulable proteins. https://honey.ucdavis.edu/news/articles/honey-intrinsically-non-gmo
  28. Rick Richter
    The proposal from the FDA does not do enough to provide clear understandable information for all consumers. All information must be in basic clear english completely spelled out.
  29. Kathleen schuh Ries
    Truth in labeling is very important to me. I prefer food as close to its natural state as possible. I read labels and want to know clearly what is in my produce as well as any product I purchase.
  30. Jean Walenta
    Do it!!!
  31. Ali
    Its absurd that they would do this.
    Why aren't they labeling food normally? They need to take a break from being evil once in a while.
  32. Nancy L Heuser
    This proposed labeling that the USDA is talking about is wrong and concealing from the public that GE foods can be harmful. It is insulting to think they will show this label with a sun as if it is environmentally safe. Our USDA is very lenient when it comes to what they allow to be in food. There are things that are in everyday food that Europe would not think of having in their food. I believe the labeling should remain as is or even get stricter with the information we as consumers can see immediately when we shop.
  33. Elizabeth Beaudette
    GMO products counter the effects of climate change and lessens, by 37 percent, the use of pesticides.

    Information obtained by: The Wall Street Journal, June 23-24, 2018

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