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Release of Food Labeling Requirements for Bioengineered Foods


On December 20th, the UDSA released the National Disclosure Requirements for food that has been “bioengineered”.  This term replaces “genetically modified” and the status of food will have to be disclosed on a label as plain text, as a symbol or a digital link.  The USDA guidelines follow a Federal disclosure law enacted in 2016 setting a mandatory compliance date of January 2022 but with the anticipation of labeling commencing on January 1st, 2020. Distributors of bioengineered food can include a QR code on the label allowing consumers to scan for more information. In the event of disclosure by a digital-link, a telephone number will also have to be provided. 


As with any compromise, the USDA requirements pleased neither proponents nor opponents of bioengineered food. In a CNBC interview, Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety characterized the use of digital labeling as “irresponsible”.  Kimbrell amplified, “It’s a terrible precedent,” adding, “labeling under these regulations is anti-consumer, discriminatory and illegal.”


The guidelines exempt highly-processed foods such as beet-derived sugar and high-fructose corn syrup from mandatory bioengineered labeling since modified DNA cannot be detected in these ingredients. A prominent industry consultant indicated that the national guidelines will assist manufacturers to select ingredients and direct either bioengineered or conventional food to specific demographics. 


At the end of the day, there is still a range of certified organic products that by definition do not contain bioengineered foods.  The guidelines will probably introduce stability and remove uncertainty as to future labeling.  The USDA proposal satisfies the need for consumer awareness without imposing unnecessary cost on low-income consumers who are content to purchase foods of acceptable nutritional value and who ignore the non-issue of bioengineered status.