There is some confusion about the difference between bioengineered (BE) ingredient disclosure and non-GMO labeling: What does each mean? What are the legal implications of both? What, if anything, does either have to do with the USDA Organic Standards? This blog will offer some clarity.
The USDA established the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard in response to consumer demand for more information about what is in the food we eat. The Standard defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material, and says that any foods meeting the 5% BE-containing threshold must declare so on their packaging.
Non-GMO labeling, on the other hand, is a voluntary declaration indicating that a food does not contain any genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is not per any established FDA or USDA standard, or other U.S. federal government regulation, and it is not currently required by any state. The primary advocate for this is the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit “dedicated to building and protecting a non-GMO food supply.” They offer inspection and non-GMO certification.
Does BE mean something different from GMO?
Prior to the BE regulation, the term genetically modified organism or “GMO” has been the term used most often in the marketing of foods and by the public, although the history of the term remains fuzzy. Genetically modified and bioengineered both indicate that a food item’s genetic material has been altered using techniques outside of traditional breeding. The USDA uses this definition:
” … a 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.”
The difference, then, is how the terms are used legally.
What are the regulatory differences?
BE disclosure is federal law.
Foods that contain BE material must say so on the packaging. This is a mandatory legal requirement and companies that don’t comply could face fines or other penalties. (Jan. 1, 2020, began the implementation period for the BE disclosure, with a mandatory compliance date of Jan. 1, 2022.) We have a blog that goes into more detail here.
Non-GMO labeling, on the other hand, is neither required by law nor regulated by the FDA, except that the claim must not be deceptive. It is a voluntary declaration adopted by some companies for marketing and education purposes only.
What does this have to do with the USDA Organic Standards?
The USDA has established national standards and a certification process for organically produced agricultural products, and any foods that use GMO ingredients will not qualify for the “USDA Organic” label. However, if a food has earned organic certification that food may claim that it’s “non-GMO” and is free of BE material.
How can ESHA help?
Our Genesis R&D Foods program has an Attribute feature that you can use to track BE material and declare it with either a seal or text. Instructions on using that are here. We also have an excellent webinar that shows you how to use the program for compliance and goes over the regulations here.