GMO Roundup Ready soybeans harvested from an Illinois farm in 2003
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

The United States Department of Agriculture has made its expected final decision on how foods made with genetically modified or engineered ingredients should be labeled—and not everyone’s happy about it.

In 2016, Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, which mandated that the USDA would have to create a universal labeling standard for foods made with the help of genetic engineering techniques (the Food and Drug Administration also has some jurisdiction over GM foods, but it was the USDA that was specially tasked with product labeling). The agency missed the initial deadline of July 2018 to finalize the standard, a move that prompted lawsuits from advocacy groups. But it has now finally released its guidelines.

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The guidelines appear little changed from the draft standards released by the agency this May. They mandate that foods derived from plants or animals that “contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature,” must be labeled as “bioengineered.”

Companies will be allowed to notify customers if a food or ingredient is bioengineered in four ways. These can either be a written out disclosure, an illustrative USDA-approved symbol, the use of QR codes scannable by smartphones or a website link, and text messages. But according to Jane Kolodinsky, an applied economist at the University of Vermont who has studied people’s attitudes toward GMOs, there’s still plenty of foods commonly thought as genetically modified that will be left unlabeled by the USDA’s standards.

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“The ruling is clearly a compromise,” she told Gizmodo via email. “It omits ingredients that many people believe are GM and others do not.”

One of the labels approved by the USDA to show customers their foods are made with bioengineered ingredients
Illustration: USDA

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The USDA has chosen not to label foods made with highly refined sugars and oils made from genetically engineered crops like soybean or beets as biogengineered, arguing these foods contain nothing of the genetic material used to produce them. Certain foods made from 13 bioengineered crops currently may not require labeling under this exception, though companies need to prove their ingredients are free of any genetic material for their foods to qualify.

Advocacy groups such as Just Label It have long protested this planned omission and other aspects of the USDA’s standards. And the organization wasn’t any happier on Thursday. Soon after the USDA’s announcement, the group sent out a statement decrying the guidelines.

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“Disappointingly, the Trump administration has once again sided with the profits of the chemical industry and failed to deliver for ordinary Americans,” the group said.

Anti-GMO organizations have often claimed that GM foods might be more dangerous to people’s health than non-GM foods, an assertion with little to no scientific backing. But some GM experts have agreed that the USDA’s decision to switch to “biogengineered” as the new labeling term isn’t particularly helpful.

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Just this past June, Kolodinsky and her team published research showing that customers in Vermont grew less fearful of GM foods after the state’s labeling law was enacted (the 2016 federal law suspended any state labeling laws, but many of Vermont’s foods continued to carry GM labels). But that effect might be harder to see with the use of “bioengineered” rather than more commonly used terms.

“The chosen pictogram label does include words,” Kolodinsky noted. “That said, ‘biogengineered’ will require a learning curve and consumers will have to learn that this word means GM. This is not currently in the lexicon of the consumer.”

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Kolodinsky’s own work and even research by the USDA itself has also shown that the use of QR codes can be confusing for customers to figure out and that few people prefer it. So it’s probably for the best that QR codes aren’t the only way to advertise these labels.

The lack of labeling on highly refined ingredients isn’t the only exception carved out by the USDA. Foods produced by very small food manufacturers and food served in restaurants, delis, and other similar eateries won’t be required to carry these labels, even if they have bioengineered ingredients.

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The rule will fully kick into effect for most companies by January 1,2020, though some smaller manufacturers will have until the following year to fully comply. By January 1, 2022, all companies will have to comply with the law. But it’s likely we’ll start to see some companies label their foods by as early as next February, the agency said.

“We will have to wait and see how consumers react to the new labels,” Kolodinsky said.

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[USDA]