GMO Foods Will Be Labeled 'Bioengineered'

GMO food

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Key Takeaways

  • As of January 1, 2022, producers are required to comply with the new labeling guidelines.
  • Bioengineered food labels can include the word "bioengineered," a USDA-created bioengineered logo, a QR code, or a phone number to text for more information.
  • Advocates are worried that the new term will confuse consumers and that food companies can take advantage of regulatory loopholes.

Grocery shoppers have to embrace a new term: bioengineered.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture established a federal standard for labeling genetically modified foods with "bioengineered" or "derived from bioengineered."

Previous labels that said “genetically engineered” (GE) or “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) will no longer be used, although consumers may be more familiar with these existing terms.

The USDA defines bioengineered foods as containing "detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

Some experts and advocates worry that the term "bioengineered" will lead to confusion for consumers.

“This is not the preferred terminology for the public and our data backed that up,” Cara Cuite, PhD, a health psychologist in the department of human ecology at Rutgers University, told Verywell.

In 2013, Cuite co-wrote a study that suggested more than half of American consumers know very little or nothing at all about GMOs, but a majority of them had some negative perceptions of GMO foods.

Why Did the USDA Mandate Bioengineered Food Labels?

Before this new USDA rule, there was no national requirement for food manufacturers to label GMO crops or ingredients.

Some companies voluntarily included information about GMOs and GE ingredients on their packaging. In 2010, the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit that verifies non-GMO food supply, started its own label for non-GMO foods and it's been adopted by thousands of retailers and manufacturers.

Some states had their own rules while others didn't require the label at all. In 2014, Vermont was the first state to pass a GMO labeling law. However, the federal law that required the USDA to create a standard labeling requirement overrode the state law in Vermont two years later.

"This is to avoid a patchwork approach. Vermont might have one set of rules and New Hampshire could have a different set of rules. It becomes really challenging to try to sell food in both of those places if you need different labeling," Cuite said.

What Do the BE Labels Look Like?

Producers have four options for labeling bioengineered foods:

  • Using the word "bioengineered" on the packaging
  • A standard logo that says "bioengineered" or "derived from bioengineering"
  • A QR code that consumers can scan for more information on the bioengineered product
  • A phone number that consumers can text to learn more about the bioengineered product
bioengineered label USDA
GMO foods will be labeled "bioengineered" with a logo like this.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Cuite said that the USDA had originally proposed labels that didn't have words on them. When her team conducted research on the public perception of the original designs, they found that most consumers thought the symbol meant "happy" or "natural."

"We're very happy to see that the symbols now all have words on them. I think that was a really important step that USDA took," she said.

Food producers only have to use one of the four options on their packaging, but the QR code and phone number options might present challenges for some consumers, according to Josh Herring PhD, a professor of food biochemistry at Alabama A&M University.

"Both require the consumer to take extra steps as they cannot read or view the information directly on the food package. The consumer is required to scan a code or text a specific word or code to gain more information," Herring told Verywell.

In 2017, the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), a subset of the USDA, studied the potential challenges related to digital bioengineered labels. The AMS reported that 85% of consumers experienced technical challenges using certain mobile apps or scanning digital links.

"This could be due to wifi, connectivity, or ability to utilize mobile applications and it may reduce the ability and desire of consumers to seek additional information," Herring said.

The digital labels aren't the only place where consumers are asked to put in additional effort. Anyone, including consumers, can report a product that they believe is not following the bioengineered standards. It will then be investigated by the USDA.

What Foods Will Be Labeled?

Not all bioengineered food products are required to be labeled. According to the USDA, "highly refined ingredients (like some sugars and oils) and foods that are primarily meat, poultry, or egg products, do not require a bioengineered food disclosure."

According to the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a vast majority of bioengineered foods fall under the "highly refined" category. "These regulations are not about informing the public but rather designed to allow corporations to hide their use of genetically engineered ingredients from their customers," CFS Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell said in a press release.

Foods sold by "very small" suppliers also don't have to comply with the labeling requirements. And foods served in restaurants, airplanes, and food trucks are exempt as well.

Are Bioengineered Foods Bad For You?

Reports from the Food and Drug Administration and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conclude that bioengineered foods are safe to eat. These foods have been on the market long before the USDA created the new labels.

An up-to-date list of bioengineered foods with their safety information can be found on the USDA website.

Some consumers choose to avoid GMO products and the new labels are another tool they can use when deciding which groceries to purchase.

Like the USDA's "organic" labels, the BE labels don't indicate if the product is healthy or nutritious. "These labels simply inform consumers of the ingredients used in the food product," Herring said.

Cuited reiterated that the only thing that's changed is the label, not the products. Consumers who already avoid GMOs have likely been look for organic or non-GMO labels already, she added.

"For the majority of people, I don't imagine that their food choices are going to change too dramatically, but that really remains to be seen," Cuite said.

What This Means For You

Studies have shown that genetically engineered foods are just as safe to consume as foods that have not been genetically engineered. If you decide to avoid genetically engineered foods, keep an eye out for these new labels on grocery store shelves. But remember, certain foods and producers are exempt from using the new bioengineered labels.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. BE disclosure.

  2. Hallman W, Cuite C, Morin X. Public perceptions of labeling genetically modified foodsRutgers University. 2013.

  3. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Study of electronic or digital disclosure.

  4. USDA. What is a bioengineered food?

  5. USDA. Information for regulated entities.

  6. FDA. GMOs and your health.

  7. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Genetically engineered crops: experiences and prospects- new report.