Last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the first ever guidelines for labeling GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). At first glance, this seems like a win for consumers who want to know where their food comes from and how it’s made. But the new GMO labels have fallen short, failing to provide clarity for consumers and offering substantial loopholes for the farming industry.
Even mega-corporation Nestlé agrees, stating:
The standards fall short of consumer expectations and the practices of leading food companies, particularly when it comes to how we are already disclosing highly-refined ingredients and the threshold for disclosure.”
What is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)?
Essentially, genetically modified organisms are living organisms, like fruits and vegetables, that have been artificially manipulated through genetic engineering. The technology was developed primarily to make crops resistant to toxic herbicides and pesticides but is now used to create crops that are bigger, brighter, and brown-resistant. The food you buy at the grocery store is nothing like food that’s grown naturally.
Due to a severe lack of safety studies, there is no evidence proving that GMOs are safe for consumers. The biggest risk is the presence of harmful pesticides and herbicides, which have been shown to cause cancer and other harmful side effects. Although more than 60 countries require GMOs to be labeled (including the entire European Union), the United States has had no such requirements.
At TTAC, we continue to stress the importance of nutrition, including organic produce that’s free of toxic chemicals. And we aren’t alone. According to a poll by ABC News, the vast majority of Americans want GMOs to be labeled. And why not? People deserve to know exactly what they’re putting into their bodies. But until now, the United States has not required the food industry to disclose the genetic alteration of their products.
You may have seen labels on your food that say “Non-GMO.” This is largely due to movements by the NON-GMO project and others who have helped Americans identify food that has not been genetically engineered. We believe that consumers deserve to know exactly where their food comes from and how it was made. A federal mandate requiring new GMO labels is exactly what we wanted.
The New GMO Labels
Unfortunately, federal regulators have failed us yet again. When tasked with outlining the requirements for the new GMO labels, the USDA failed to create acceptable guidelines for the industry. This failure is due, in part, to massive influence by the agricultural industry.
The current Secretary of Agriculture is a man named Sonny Perdue. A former Georgia governor and veterinarian, Perdue was approved as secretary in early 2017… and has deep ties with the agricultural industry. A former fertilizer salesman, he’s received well over $300,000 in campaign donations from the agricultural industry. Perdue has since supported severely under-qualified candidates for influential positions within the government’s agricultural oversight department.
Sonny Perdue was very clear about the intent of the new GMO labels, saying
This ensures clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food.”
And that sounds great. Who doesn’t want clear labeling on the food they bring home?
But the new guidelines fail consumers. They are so convoluted that the average shopper will be hard-pressed to know what the new labels mean – if they can even read them.
Meanwhile, there are a substantial number of loopholes that allow manufacturers to avoid labeling requirements altogether.
Let me outline a few of the glaring issues with the new GMO labels:
The acronym “GMO” has been prevalent for years, and most Americans concerned with the origins of their food are aware of its meaning. But like many marketing efforts before, agricultural lobbyists have convinced the USDA to change terminology.
THIS IS IMPORTANT.
GMOs are now officially referred to as “Bioengineered” foods. This is a term with which the general public is completely unfamiliar, and a transparent attempt to rebrand GMOs to avoid detection. Not only does this introduce new vernacular to consumers, it allows regulatory bodies to more strictly define the products subject to the new labeling requirements. According to the FDA,
The Standard defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
But the new rules are a joke.
The new label for bioengineered foods (GMOs) is biased and misleading. The Department of Agriculture defined the purpose of the new labels this way:
This rule is intended to provide a mandatory uniform national standard for disclosure of information to consumers about the BE status of foods.”
Agricultural lobbyists pushed for the acronym “BE” on the labels, but even the USDA knew that this would confuse consumers. Instead, they settled on a logo that features the word “bioengineered” twice. According to the official decision,
This will improve the understanding of the symbol, as many comments explained that they did not understand what the acronym “BE” stood for. Symbols were designed to communicate the bioengineered status of a food in a way that would not disparage biotechnology or suggest BE food is more or less safe than non-BE food.”
And that’s fantastic. But the new symbol is still incredibly deceptive. Featuring farmland, a healthy plant, and a sun, the new symbol for GMOs bioengineered ingredients is inherently biased. This symbol is deceivingly natural, implying that the product is natural and healthy. These products are exactly the opposite!
According to Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a democratic representative from Maine:
These labels should give people the facts of whether ingredients in their food have been genetically altered, plain and simple.”
But new terminology and a deceptive symbol indicate that they are not.
One would think that the new symbol is the bare minimum for informing consumers of the origins of their food, but the convolution goes deeper.
In lieu of the symbol, companies are permitted to provide a Quick Response (QR) code. This is essentially a fancy barcode that you can scan on your smartphone that generates a website. And while this seems like a convenient way for shoppers to gather information, it inherently discriminates against consumers who don’t have smartphones, can’t afford the data use, or don’t have a reliable internet connection.
What’s more, it creates an extra step for anyone who wants to know where their food comes from. There is a requirement that products utilizing the QR code provide a phone number for consumers to call for information, but this option still presents significant obstacles to folks who simply want to know where their food comes from and how it was made. Previous versions of the symbol incorporated a smiley face, so the current image is, surprisingly, the best choice given the options.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the new GMO labels is the definition of GMOs put forth by the USDA. The majority of GMOs aren’t whole foods. They are processed foods derived from GMOs like soy, canola, and corn. These are highly refined products, and DNA tests may not demonstrate their GMO content. Although many products are derived from these biologically engineered ingredients, they are not required to meet labeling requirements.
There’s also an exception for “inadvertent or technically unavoidable” GMO content. Up to 5% of the product can be genetically modified without requiring a label. Consumers deserve to know if their food has been “bioengineered,” and yet there is a loophole allowing manufacturers to market GMO products without disclosure. The GMO contamination threshold in the European Union is 0.9%, a mark that would have been in line with international standards.
Even worse, the definition of bioengineered foods excludes many of the cutting-edge practices that are just recently emerging. For example, CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is an emerging process that involves altering the DNA of organisms. RNAi (Ribonucleic Acid Interface) is another technology that alters the genetic makeup of an organism to achieve a desired result. None of the new technologies used to create GMOs are included in the definition provided by the Department of Agriculture. These cutting-edge methods, likely the future of GMOs bioengineered foods, are exempt from the new rule.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, believes that the new rules are deceptive and misleading:
The USDA has betrayed the public trust by denying Americans the right to know how their food is produced.”
The new rule creates the illusion of transparency without providing thorough or accurate information to the American public. Once again, our regulatory agencies are satisfied with providing a facade of accountability. They are not concerned whatsoever with the truth. Corporate agriculture, and the massive industry that they supply, are unwilling to disclose their practices to their consumers.
Because there’s too much money to be made. Why would major agricultural businesses disclose information that hurts their bottom line? It’s important to know what we’re consuming. It’s important to know exactly what we’re putting into our bodies, but these new labels completely fail their mission.
Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, may have said it best:
At a time when consumers are asking more and more questions about the use of genetic engineering, today’s rule will further undermine the technology by sowing greater confusion among Americans who simply want the right to know if their food is genetically modified.”