USDA's Proposed GMO Labels Spark Controversy

Spoiler, “GMO” is nowhere to be found.

By Ethan L. Johns
May 22, 2018

Image: United States Department of Agriculture

For years, opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been at war with Big Agriculture over labeling. Do consumers have a right to know that the foods they buy contain ingredients produced using the science? In 2016 the US government said yes, and President Obama signed legislation mandating the labeling of “bioengineered” foods.

At the beginning of May—after two years and an initial public comment period—the United States Department of Agriculture finally released its recommendations for the implementation of GMO labeling. Yet, to many, something was not quite right about the proposal.

First, the terms “GMO” and “genetically modified” are almost completely absent from the language of the proposal. Instead, the Agricultural Marketing Service—the USDA agency tasked with drafting the recommendations—chose to forgo the instantly recognizable terms in favor of “bioengineering” or “BE” for short:

“AMS considered using alternative phrases, such as “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered.” However, AMS is not proposing any similar terms because we believe that the statutory term, “bioengineering,” adequately describes food products of the technology that Congress intended to be within the scope of the [National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard].”

This is consistent with the 2016 law, which opted to use “bioengineering” instead of “GMO”—a term that some see as emotionally-charged.

The most brazen aspect of the proposal is the imagery for the front-of-package labels, pictured above. In addition to the use of “BE” instead of “GMO,” the labels—two of which feature smiley faces—are colorful and sunny. The Sierra Club has called the labels “Orwellian,” while George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety has described them as “very pro-biotech, cartoonishly so,” and “essentially propaganda for the industry.”

Not that the label will even end up as an obligatory part of the packaging; the USDA proposal currently says that food companies will have the option to declare GMOs with a short sentence or a QR code. Critics of the use of QR codes are quick to point out their discriminatory nature: nearly a quarter of the US population doesn’t own a smartphone, and a third of rural Americans don’t have access to the internet at home.

Under the labeling rules, USDA organic certified foods will not require GMO labels, since certified organic foods are inherently non-GMO, according to federal regulations.

The public comment period for the USDA proposal is open until July 29th. If you believe that your food should be labeled in an honest and transparent manner—or if you don’t—make your voice heard by leaving your comment now.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns