USDA’s Proposed “Bioengineered” Labels, featuring Nature and a Smiling Sun, Give Impression that GMOs are Healthy, Environmentally Friendly

For Presence Marketing Newsletter, June 2018
By Steven Hoffman

USDA in May issued a proposed rule to implement legislation requiring some form of GMO ingredient label disclosure on food packaging. 

Officially named the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), the 106-page proposed rule provides definitions on what is considered a bioengineered ingredient, suggestions on how to disclose those ingredients and the scope of exemptions available under the law. For example, food products produced from an animal that ate GMO – or what USDA now refers to as “bioengineered” – feed do not require label disclosure. Food service establishments and very small food manufacturers are also exempt, reports legal firm Keller and Heckman. Foods certified under USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) also are not subject to GMO or “BE” disclosure.

Comments on the proposed rule are being accepted through July 3, 2018, and should be submitted as directed in the Federal Register document, published on May 4, 2018.

In addition, USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service announced an informational webinar to provide an overview of the background, provisions and potential impacts of the proposed bioengineered food standard, available on AMS’s website.

USDA’s proposed GMO or “Bioengineered (BE) symbols include scenes of nature and a smiling sun, intimating that GMOs are healthy and environmentally friendly.

USDA’s proposed GMO or “Bioengineered (BE) symbols include scenes of nature and a smiling sun, intimating that GMOs are healthy and environmentally friendly.

USDA’s proposed rule addresses federal legislation passed in 2016 to create a national GMO labeling standard in an effort to prevent individual states from passing their own GMO labeling regulations. As a result of the federal legislation, Vermont’s law to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered ingredients, which took effect in 2016 for a brief period of time, was overturned in favor of the national law.

USDA’s proposed standard defines “bioengineered” food as food “(A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and (B) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

According to organic industry observer Max Goldberg, publisher of Organic Insider, “This does not give us any clarity about whether GMO 2.0 technologies, such as gene-editing, synthetic biology and RNAi, will be covered under this rule. Second, a GMO-disclosure rule should make it clear and easy for consumers to know whether a food is genetically modified or not. The truth is that most people have no idea what ‘bioengineered’ means, and using this seldom-used, scientific term is confusing to consumers. Even the USDA itself was content to use the term ‘GMO labeling’ on its own website up until a few months ago,” he said.

Foods that need to be labeled are broken down into two proposed lists:

  • Bioengineered foods commercially available in the U.S. "with a high adoption rate,” i.e., genetically modified varieties are planted or produced more than 85% of the time. This would include such foods as canola, corn, cotton, soybean and sugar beet, and can be labeled as "Bioengineered food” or “Contains a bioengineered food ingredient.”
  • Bioengineered foods commercially currently available in the U.S. "with a low adoption rate,” including such foods as apples (non browning), papayas, potatoes and squash (summer varieties). These can be labeled as “May be a bioengineered food,” “Contains a bioengineered food ingredient,” or “May contain a bioengineered food ingredient.”

According to Goldberg, companies will have three options to disclose the presence of bioengineered foods: text, symbol or QR codes. However, he says, QR codes are inherently discriminatory since nearly 100 million Americans do not own a smartphone. Plus, USDA’s proposed bioengineered symbols, “which are supposed to be neutral, give off the impression that bioengineered foods are healthy,” he says.

Additionally, Goldberg warns, under the proposed rule, “Organic foods can be labeled as ‘Non-GMO’ or ‘Not BE.’ This is very problematic and poses an enormous risk for organic. While genetic modification is prohibited in organic production, this does not mean that organic foods are free from GMO contamination.”

Comments Talking Points
Comments on the proposed GMO labeling rule are being accepted through July 3, 2018, and can be submitted via Goldberg recommends including the following talking points among your comments:

  • The term "bioengineered" should not be used. It is both misleading and confusing to consumers. "GMO", "GE" or "Genetic Engineering" should be used instead. These are terms consumers are familiar with and understand.
  • All forms of genetic engineering should be disclosed, including gene-editing, synthetic biology and RNAi.
  • All highly processed foods, such as genetically engineered oils, syrups and sugars, should not be excluded from labeling.
  • Any symbol that represents "bioengineered" should be neutral and not contain a smiley face or a sun, or a nature scene.

Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural, providing brand marketing, PR, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. Contact