Genetically modified foods have been used for decades with no major safety issues; more than 90 percent of the soybeans and all of the sugar beets grown in the US are now GMO. Yet the technology remains controversial, with worries about the crops cutting across the entire political spectrum.
One controversial solution to societal unease has been the call to place labels on foods that contain GMOs.
Labels and the law
There’s nothing inherently unsafe about genetically engineering crops or agricultural animals. None of the genetic material survives digestion to enter human cells (otherwise our cells would be awash in the DNA of gut bacteria). And, so far at least, careful design and testing has ensured that the proteins made by the altered DNA don’t cause health problems such as allergic reactions. But the public has been consistently uneasy about the technology, with polls showing that only slightly more than a third of the general public thinks eating GMO foods is safe.
This uneasiness has led to a steady flow of legislation that would have food producers label any of their products that contain GMOs. But this legislation has also attracted a lot of controversy. Many people worry that the labels will needlessly stoke fears of a technology that has been safe and is widely used. The high levels of some GMO crops also mean that the practicalities of labeling could be nightmarish—what level of GMO ingredient would require a label, and could food producers even determine the level, given the complexity of agricultural supply chains and the fact that the crops themselves are indistinguishable without highly specialized tests?
But, to an extent, the debate ended with a 2016 law that started out as a vehicle to fund university research in coastal states and ended up specifying that GMO food would be labeled. Signed by then-President Obama, the law specified that labels would be applied to any food that contains genetic material modified through recombinant DNA, although it exempted restaurant food and meat derived from animals that had been fed GMO crops.
Most of the details, however, weren’t specified. Instead, the task was handed to the Department of Agriculture. Two years and one request for public comment later, the USDA has an incomplete set of draft rules and some things that it still wants the public’s input on.
These may be the rules
A large portion of the FDA’s rules are focused on what the labels should look like. These include potential logos, which use BE to denote “bioengineered,” matching the legislation’s terminology. Text labels are also being considered, as well as where to place them on food labels. In addition, QR codes are a viable option, in part because of an evaluation that determined a large majority of US citizens now have smart phones, and most national and regional retailers have cell phone coverage or provide free in-store Wi-Fi. (The legislation contains a provision that prevents food providers from using this as a means to track user data.)
But most of the rules involve figuring out what foods should be subject to the labeling. Under other relevant information, “food” includes things like dietary supplements, purified enzymes, and chewing gum. Beyond that, most things we typically think of as food are in play, with the odd exception of catfish.
But things get rather complicated with anything containing more than a single food item. Anything that has a meat other than catfish as its single most prevalent ingredient isn’t going to need a label, even if one of the lesser ingredients is a GMO product. From there on, it gets even messier. “A multi-ingredient food product that contains broth, stock, water, or similar solution as the first ingredient, and a meat, poultry, or egg product as the second ingredient on the food label would also not be subject to [labeling],” the USDA concludes. “If, however, a meat, poultry, or egg ingredient is the third most predominant ingredient, or lower, the food would be subject to [labeling].”
If a food is subject to this regulation after those criteria are considered, the USDA has done its best to simplify matters: it has created lists of the GMO crops that are currently used in the US, both at high and low frequencies. These range from sugar beets (100-percent GMO) to squash and papaya, where GMO options are available but not widely deployed. Unexpectedly, cotton shows up on the list, but that is because it is sometimes used as a source of cellulose (and not a situation). These lists will be updated annually, and food producers can simply check whether any of their ingredients appear on them to determine if labeling might be required.
There is one major issue about which the USDA hasn’t reached a decision and would like public comments. That’s what to do if an ingredient is used in a heavily processed form, one where there’s no detectable genetic material in it. For example, the sugar beets that are fully genetically modified are generally used to produce sugar materials with nothing resembling plant in them. Would these require labeling? The USDA is considering having food producers pay for independent labs to certify that no genetic material is detected, in which case labeling might be required.
No decision has been reached on cases of inadvertent or unavoidable contamination of non-GMO material with engineered crops. It’s considering thresholds of both five percent and 0.9 percent as tolerable for this contamination before labeling is required.
Overall, the USDA seems to be taking a reasonable approach to the issue. The most complicated portions of the proposed rules are dictated by past legislation that put the agency in charge of inspecting specific categories of food. It’s also avoiding emotion-inducing terms like GMOs in favor of using the 2016 law’s use of “bioengineered.” But it’s clearly going to force food producers to go through some major hassles when it comes to figuring out the status of their sources—a hassle that will clearly get passed on to those suppliers and the farmers that supply them.
And it’s hard not to think that this is much ado about nothing. As the proposed rules note, “The regulatory oversight of USDA and other relevant Federal agencies ensures that food produced through bioengineering meets all relevant Federal health, safety, and environmental standards.”