The Washington Post reports that on New Year;'s Day, the US Department of Agriculture's new labeling rules for genetically modified foods went into effect - the big change being that "GMO" is out, and “bioengineered" is in.
It actually is a little more complex than that:
"The goal was to get rid of the patchwork of different labels for foods and ingredients that have been scientifically tinkered with, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, the move also puts a greater burden on consumers to do their homework to understand what the labels mean, food advocates say.
"Foods that previously were labeled as containing 'genetically engineered' (GE) ingredients or 'genetically modified organisms' (GMOs) will now be labeled as 'bioengineered,' or come with a phone number or QR code guiding consumers to more information online.
"The changes are part of the USDA’s new rules on controversial modified crops and ingredients. Previous labeling requirements were governed differently on a state-by-state basis. By providing a uniform, national standard for labeling bioengineered foods, 'it avoids a patchwork of state labeling regulations,' a USDA spokeswoman said in a statement."
This being a regulator effort by the government, there are, of course, loopholes:
The Post writes:
"Under the new rule, a food does not contain genetic material if the genetic material is not 'detectable.' If one or more of a food’s ingredients comes from a modified plant but the ingredients themselves contain no DNA from that plant, the label may carry a 'derived from bioengineering' disclosure. But that’s voluntary. So, starches, oils and sweeteners made from bioengineered plants, but are so highly processed that no DNA remains, may not be labeled.
"And the USDA has built in some wiggle room, setting a threshold at 5 percent for the 'unintended' presence of genetically engineered ingredients, so highly processed foods made from genetically engineered crops — like sodas, candies and cooking oils — would be exempt from the rules, if they fit under that 5 percent threshold. The European Union’s standard is about five times lower, at 0.9 percent."
- KC's View:
Needless to say, reactions to the new regulations are anything but consistent - except that they actually are consistent with what I'd expect from the various sides.
Food safety groups that are pro-bioengineered food have a problem with any sort of labeling, arguing that since there is no proof that they do any harm why do they have to be labeled at all? Business groups such as the Consumer Brands Association say they support "a uniform framework for the disclosure of modified foods," they don't really like this framework and would prefer a pause while something more palatable to membership is crafted.
Advocacy groups that have traditionally opposed GMOs in food believe that the regulations don't go far enough, and that there are way too many loopholes for comfort.
My position over the years, I think, has generally been consistent, though, to be honest, I've been writing about this for so damned long I'm not even sure what I was saying at the beginning.
I like labels. I think the more transparency, the better, I think information in the hands of consumers, properly and contextually communicated, can be a powerful and positive thing. I generally think that loopholes end up being black holes of disinformation and deception, because the people and companies that exploit them usually have the means and motivation to avoid transparency.
And I think that about pretty much everything, not just bioengineered foods. I'll acknowledge that there are exceptions, like national security. But making sure that people understand what they are eating and where it came from? That ought to be low-hanging fruit (whether it is organic, bioengineered or some other kind).