Almost two years ago, then President Obama signed a bill that seemingly gave GMO labeling advocates what they had been demanding for years: mandatory labeling for foods made with genetically modified ingredients. The specific label had yet to be determined, and the bill also left room for a QR code or a 1-800 number on food packages instead of a clear label.
Earlier this month, the USDA revealed the first draft of the what the GMO labeling will look like, and while a QR code or a 1-800 number may still be options, there's also a seal that can go on food packages. It's not the type of seal that GMO labeling advocates had hoped for, though.
Instead of being a straight-forward symbol with text, alerting that a food is "made with genetically modified ingredients" or "made with GMOs" — terms most consumers are familiar with — the USDA used the termCongress uses when talking about GMO's: bioengineered. The USDA has proposed three styles of the symbol that would be used, some simply with "be" on them, some with the word "bioengineered" and some that say "may be bioengineered food."
The problem with the labels
The three styles of proposed labels above are from the USDA's proposed symbols page.
Consumers are familiar with the terms GMOs, genetically modified and genetically engineered. It's the way food made with GMO ingredients are referred to in the media. It's the way food manufacturers refer to them, too. To label these foods with terminology that's not commonly used is neither clear nor simple; it's confusing. These sunny, smiley labels seem designed to leave consumers in the dark about what they represent, especially the versions that only say "be."
The use of green, yellow, suns, leaves and rolling hills can also be misconstrued as indicating something natural. Genetically modified ingredients have been scientifically and chemically altered; they are not as they are found in nature and they require human intervention.
The Environmental Working Group points out some of the language in the proposal that could leave consumers in the dark, especially concerning what types of products will be labeled. Their reading of the draft of the proposal finds that the rules could "exclude almost three-fourths of products with genetically engineered ingredients." They also point out that since a QR code is still an option, consumers without smartphones or those who can't connect to the Internet in the grocery store, won't get the information that's supposed to be mandatory.
The good news
These labels aren't final. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard reveals the proposed labels as well as the proposed rules for labeling. The USDA has opened the proposal up for public comment before finals rules are written. The link will take you to a summary of the proposal and the comments page so you can let the agency know your thoughts on the labels and the rules. It also gives you the option to download the 30-page document if you'd like to get into the minute details of the food disclosure standard.