The answer: Not as many products as advocates for the labeling might have thought. It's been estimated that up to 75% of the products in a grocery store are made with ingredients derived from crops that were genetically modified. According to the regulations, items that contain highly refined ingredients don't have to be labeled.
Any product that intentionally contains bioengineered ingredients needs to have a label. If a product inadvertently has at least 5% bioengineered material it needs a label. This is a higher concentration amount than most other countries that have GMO labels.
The regulations state that manufacturers can voluntarily disclose GMOs if a product contains some of these highly refined ingredients or has a lower concentration of biologically engineered material, which GMO advocates cheer and consumer organizations caution.
The new labeling requirements, which most manufacturers must implement starting in 2020, were viewed by some analysts as fair.
"They balance consumers' request for more information with a labeling approach that is based on facts, practicality and common sense, rather than politics and fear," Sean McBride of DSM Strategic Communication told Food Dive in an email. "No one side got everything it wanted, and there will be special interest skirmishes in the 116th Congress and beyond over this, but for now, we have a clear flight path to providing consumers with the transparency they want and deserve.”
There are many other aspects of the regulations those in the industry appreciate and despise. But the time for changes has passed. Manufacturers now need to work on ensuring that their labels comply with the new guidelines. According to the regulations, manufacturers may put their labels to the test as soon as this month.
What needs to be labeled?
While the new regulations outlined the symbols and terms that will be used, what needs to be labeled did not change during the rulemaking process. Meat, poultry and egg products by themselves are not included in the disclosure, which is stated clearly in the law. Neither are multi-ingredient products that have these items as their first ingredients, such as a canned stew with beef broth.
The final rule lays out a much more nuanced — and consequential — point. Many crops that become food ingredients are GMO, but they go through a refining process to become useful ingredients. That process often destroys the genetic material in the ingredients. One of the largest questions for the final rulemaking was whether these ingredients needed to be labeled as GMOs.
Companies and trade organizations were split on the issue. In its comments on the rule, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said about 90% of the nation's corn, soybean and sugar beet crops are genetically modified. If the products using refined versions of those crops do not have to be labeled as GMO, it estimated 78% fewer products would have to be disclosed under federal law.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture decided not to require the disclosure because the initial law said GMO food needs to contain modified genetic material. If it cannot be detected, it is not there. And because the initial law also does not say anything about classifying some of these ingredients from GMO crops as "highly refined," the final rule does not take on this classification of definition.
Consumer advocates who oppose GMOs were strident in their disapproval of the ruling.
"The USDA has betrayed the public trust by denying Americans the right to know how their food is produce," Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety, said in a written statement. "Instead of providing clarity and transparency, they have created large scale confusion and uncertainty for consumers, food producers, and retailers."
The Consumer Federation of America said in a statement that exempting refined products from disclosure is "inadequate."
However, many major food manufacturers — including Campbell Soup, Mars, Danone, Kellogg, Coca-Cola and Unilever — have been voluntarily disclosing GMOs, heavily refined or not, since the mandatory labeling issue was first debated several years ago.
The USDA also will maintain a list of crops that are definitively GMO that are produced anywhere in the world. This list helps food manufacturers know which ingredients they need to disclose, but it is not exhaustive and will be updated periodically. The regulation gives manufacturers 18 months to update their labels after an ingredient is added to the list.
Currently, the following crops are defined as GMO: alfalfa, Arctic apple, canola, corn, cotton, Bt-Begun eggplant, ringspot virus-resistant varieties of papaya, pink pineapple, potato, AquAdvantage salmon, soybean, summer squash and sugarbeet.
The regulation also indicates where and how on-package disclosure is required. It needs to be seen under ordinary shopping conditions, and must be located near other information on the label that features the manufacturer's name and location. The disclosure can be through text, smartphone-scannable digital links, URLs, a telephone number, text messages or the "BE" symbol. If a digital link is used, it needs to have the words "scan here for more food information" next to it.
While there were several options for the BE symbol in the preliminary framework, the final rules set one that has a round picture of a plant growing in a sunny farm field. A green circle around the picture features the word "BIOENGINEERED" or, for voluntary disclosure, "DERIVED FROM BIOENGINEERING." There is no BE acronym — the regulations say many consumers did not know what it stood for — and an earlier logo with a smiley face was abandoned.
Will it be useful for consumers?
Since it's been known that scientists and food companies were working with ingredients from lab-modified plants, many consumers have wanted to know if they are eating them. While the predominant scientific consensus is GMO food is safe and items made with these ingredients are just as nutritious as their counterparts, consumers value transparency.
Are they getting it from this labeling law? Reactions are mixed.
"No one should be surprised that the most anti-consumer, anti-transparency administration in modern times is denying Americans basic information about what’s in their food and how it’s grown," the Environmental Working Group said in a written statement. The organization takes issue with several aspects of the law, mainly the ruling on not having to label highly refined ingredients as GMOs. EWG has added "Certrified GMO-free" — using verifications from the Non-GMO Project — as a category on its food information website.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association focused on the cohesiveness of the labeling regulations. The federal law requiring labeling was quickly passed — partially to preempt a Vermont state law requiring its own labeling scheme for GMO products sold there. With the regulations in place, consumers are closer to getting the information they seek on food products, the trade group said.
"Disclosure is imperative to increasing transparency, educating consumers and building trust of brands, the food industry and government," Karin Moore, GMA's senior vice president and general counsel, said in a written statement. "We are pleased that the USDA has now provided a structure for our companies to share this information voluntarily, building a foundation for government to more quickly respond to innovation in food and agriculture in the future."
Food Marketing Institute President and CEO Leslie Sarasin agreed, hailing the "more precise vocabulary into the public discourse regarding biotechnology in food production" represented by the new labeling requirements.
While there has been some voluntary disclosure of GMOs — and certification of non-GMO products — Thomas Gremillion, director of the CFA's Food Policy Institute, mentioned the issue of terminology. Consumers have been using "GMO" and "genetically modified" to talk about these food products — not "bioengineered," which will appear on the label. "Bioengineered" is the term in the law — the acronym "GMO" only appears twice in the text, and each time to say certain products cannot be labeled "non-GMO."
Regardless of terminology, some say that having the law in place doesn't correct fearmongering over GMOs. Transparency group Peel Back the Label said it may actually make it worse.
"While the USDA’s new disclosure rule provides additional clarity for consumers regarding what is and what is not a bioengineered food, it does nothing to reign in the growing use of misleading food labels and meaningless absence claims that are designed to capitalize on consumer fears and confusion in order to boost sales," the group said in a statement emailed to Food Dive. "Consumers deserve both truth and transparency in food labeling, and Peel Back the Label urges the USDA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to review current voluntary disclosure regulations to ensure food labeling is founded in science, not in fear.”