If you've been avoiding genetically modified foods (GMOs), you may want to shift your focus to foods labeled as "bioengineered (BE)." The feds are changing the rules about what names should be applied to foods whose genes have been tampered with.
Way back in 2016, Congress passed something called the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, directing the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) to begin applying consistent labels to engineered foods. It set the compliance date at January 1, 2022.
Previously, labeling requirements were handled by the states so something identified as GMO in Illinois might not be in Iowa. The new standards apply nationally.
So if it seems like this is something that just happened suddenly, it's really just the methodical way that things happen around Washington. In fairness to USDA, there are lots of different foods and it had to come up with a rule to cover all of them.
List of covered foods
USDA researchers came up with a list of crops and foods that may available anywhere in the world in genetically engineered forms. The list includes such everyday items as the lowly potato to the somewhat exotic papaya (ringspot virus-resistant varieties).
You may already have started seeing the new BE symbol on food labels, although there was some grumbling from manufacturers about delays in nailing down the rules and coming up with the logo, which – by the way – looks like this:
Manufacturers say the timing of the new rule is unfortunate, what with the pandemic, supply chain crisis and economic uncertainty.
"We believe the government must take a 'do no harm' position right now that allows companies to focus on delivering essential products to consumers," said Betsy Booren of the Consumer Brands Association.
Foods labeled appropriately
Basically, the new rule "requires food manufacturers, importers, and certain retailers to ensure bioengineered foods are appropriately disclosed," USDA said.
That may well be so, but some food watchdogs say the new rules will confuse consumers and also contain too many loopholes that manufacturers can slither through.
As far back as 2018, the Center for Science in the Public Interest questioned the use of the term "bioengineered," saying it was unfamiliar to most consumers and instead suggesting the more familiar "genetically engineered."
"The final rule also does not specify when a food can be voluntarily labeled as 'non-GMO,'” said Gregory Jaffe, director of the group's Project on Biotechnology. "There has been a proliferation of non-GMO claims in the marketplace for foods such as water, salt, and orange juice that don’t have any bioengineered counterpart. Such misleading labeling by food manufacturers takes advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge to suggest their products are different from similar non-labeled products."
Bioengineered, genetically modified ... they're safe
Despite all the controversy, GMOs – and, soon, BEs – are regarded as safe by scientists and public health officials. The official definition of a "bioengineered" plant or animal is that it has had a new gene inserted into it to give it a useful trait, like making it resistant to a pest or disease, or enhancing its nutritional value.
"Science continues to suggest that there is no substantiated evidence that GMO foods are less safe than non-GMO derived food products," according to a report from the University of Connecticut. In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences found no significant differences in human health between countries like the U.S., where GMOs were widespread and countries where they weren't, like the United Kingdom.
It attributed the concern over engineered foods as "largely due to an aggressive anti-GMO propaganda campaign by certain environmental groups and the organic food industry, a competitor which stands to profit from anti-GMO sentiments."
Beyond the question of safety, the fact is that most types of fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds and beans aren't genetically engineered.
Some widely consumed products are, however. Nearly 90 percent of corn – to take the most obvious example – has been produced from genetically engineered seeds since the mid-1990s. (Hybrid corn has been produced for centuries through cross-pollination, a simpler process).