GMO Foods Will Now Be Labeled ‘Bioengineered,’ or They Might Not Be Labeled at All

A man carrying his daughter in a supermarket reads a food label.
A man carrying his daughter in a supermarket reads a food label. Photo credit: d3sign / Moment / Getty Images

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a hot topic and source of controversy for several years. Now, to muddle things further, a new USDA law that took effect January 1, 2022, requires any foods that have been genetically modified to be identified as “bioengineered.”

Many consumers may have looked for non-GMO and genetically engineered (GE) or GMO labels when shopping for groceries, but they’ll need to start looking instead for labels or phrases that say “bioengineered” or “derived from bioengineered.”

Or consumers might not see a label at all. Other acceptable forms of disclosure for bioengineered foods also include a QR code or phrases that direct the consumer to call or text for more information about the foods they are purchasing, such as ““Call [1-000-000-0000] for more food information” or “Text [command word] to [number] for bioengineered food information.” 

Experts and environmentalists believe this shift will be unnecessarily confusing for consumers.

“This is not the preferred terminology for the public and our data backed that up,” Cara Cuite, a health psychologist at Rutgers University, told Verywell. Cuite conducted a 2013 study that showed more than half of participants know little about GMOs yet still had negative perceptions. For people who want to minimize the genetically modified foods they are eating, the new labels and disclosures make deciphering the ingredients even more challenging.

Critics also note that the burden is placed on the consumer to take extra steps, like scanning a code or calling a phone number, just to determine what they are buying. Many people do not have access to the technology these new disclosures may require. 

“There was a study done to show that very few people would have access to QR codes — one-third had no smartphone and limited cell service, especially in rural areas,” Meredith Stevenson, an associate attorney at the Center for Food Safety, which is suing the USDA over the new labels, told Real Simple.

The original labels were more deceiving, as the USDA originally designed the bioengineered labels without words. In Cuite’s research, she found many consumers thought the labels were for food that was “natural.”

Although the new labels may cause confusion, the existing Non-GMO Project voluntary labels will continue for consumers concerned about GMOs. At this time, GMOs are not considered a danger to human health, but some experts warn that longer term studies are needed. There are also environmental risks, as crops are often genetically modified to withstand pesticide and herbicide use.

“The way that GMOs are produced is very harmful to the environment,” Stevenson said. “We have a right to know what’s in our food and how it’s produced.”

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