Gregory Jaffe is director of CSPI's Biotechnology Project.

Most foods must now disclose if they contain DNA from a GMO (a genetically modified—aka “bioengineered”—organism). Those foods are safe to eat, say the National Academy of Sciences and the Food and Drug Administration. But the disclosure rules are confusing...and full of loopholes. Here's a look at what the rules cover, which kinds of foods may be GMO, the loopholes, and our bottom line.

The disclosure rules

Foods that MUST disclose

contains bioengineered food ingredients
Lindsay Moyer/CSPI (statement), USDA (symbol).

If a food contains DNA from a genetically modified organism, it has to say so, either with words or a symbol, typically on the label near the ingredients. 

But the USDA’s rules also let companies put the disclosure online (scroll down to “What’s disclosure?”). And the rules exempt some foods entirely (scroll down to “Mostly meat?”).

Don’t look for the term “GMO,” though. What you’ll see is “Bioengineered” or “Contains Bioengineered Food Ingredients.”

A “bioengineered” plant or animal has had a new gene inserted into it to give it a useful trait. GMO papayas, for example, have been given a gene that makes them resistant to the ringspot virus.

“Contains bioengineered food ingredients” means that at least one ingredient in the food—say, the soy protein in a plant-based burger—contains DNA from a new gene.

Foods that MAY disclose...or not

derived from a bioengineered source
Lindsay Moyer/CSPI (statement), USDA (symbol).

If one or more of a food’s ingredients comes from a genetically modified plant, but the ingredients themselves contain no DNA from the GMO plant, the label may carry a “derived from bioengineering” disclosure.

Why “may”? Because the “derived from” disclosures are voluntary.

And why “derived from”? It typically means that the ingredients are made from a GMO plant—like GMO corn, soy, canola, etc.—but that they are so highly processed that none of the plant’s modified DNA remains. Think oils, sugars, syrups, etc.

In 2018, Nutrition Action’s publisher (the Center for Science in the Public Interest)—and even some food companies—urged the USDA to make “derived” disclosures mandatory. That would have cleared things up.

Foods that MAY be GMO

Fruits, vegetables, & fish

salmon, potato, apple, papaya, pineapple, squash (apple), Ksanask (squash), (salmon), BSG Studio (all others).
  • Papayas. Most papayas from Hawaii are GMO. They’ve been engineered to resist a virus that threatened Hawaii’s papaya farms.
  • Potatoes. Some GMO varieties resist pests, disease, or browning. Most fresh potatoes aren’t GMO. Sweet potatoes never are.
  • Apples. Non-browning GMO Arctic apples are only sold sliced or dried in bags with the Arctic name and logo. No other apples are GMO.
  • Pineapples. GMO Pinkglow pineapples are mostly sold online. No yellow pineapples are GMO.
  • Summer squash. The GMO varieties—including some yellow squashes and some zucchinis—are not widely available.
  • Salmon. A limited supply of GMO AquaBounty salmon is sold to distributors in the Midwest and on the East Coast. No other salmon is GMO.


canola, soybean, corn, sugar beets, cotton
Everilda (canola), LynxVector/ (sugar beet), BSG Studio (all others).

Most soybeans, corn, sugar beets, cotton, and canola grown in the U.S. is “bioengineered” (and their oils, syrups, and sugars are typically “derived from bioengineering”). Exception: “Organic” foods must come from non-GMO plants.

  • Canola. Canola oil is used in packaged foods and for cooking.
  • Soybeans. Used to make oil, lecithin, and soy protein isolates and concentrates.
  • Corn. Typically processed into grain, corn syrup, oil, starch, etc. Most fresh sweet corn isn’t GMO. Popcorn never is.
  • Sugar beets. More than half the granulated sugar sold in stores is from GMO sugar beets.
  • Cotton. Used to make cottonseed oil and cotton fabrics.

The loopholes

What's "disclosure"?

QR code
Lindsay Moyer/CSPI.

When the USDA requires a disclosure, that doesn’t mean the food label has to do the disclosing.

Instead of carrying a “contains bioengineered ingredients” statement or “bioengineered” symbol, the label can simply list a phone number to call or text, or it can have a QR code that takes you to an online disclosure (after you scan it with a smartphone camera...assuming you have a smartphone).

The loophole: Few people are likely to realize that “scan here for more food information” may (or may not) mean “GMO food information.” And—even if you do know that—it means you have to call, scan, or text, food by food, to check for GMO ingredients. Cancel my appointments!

Mostly meat?

lean cuisine meals
Lindsay Moyer/CSPI (disclosure statement), Lean Cuisine (boxes).

“Contains a bioengineered food ingredient,” says the side of the (meat-free) Lean Cuisine Mushroom Mezzaluna Ravioli box. Does Lean Cuisine’s Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes also contain a bioengineered ingredient? Your guess is as good as ours.

The loophole: The new disclosure rules don’t cover products that list meat, poultry, or eggs as their first ingredient (or their second ingredient after water, stock, or broth). So if those foods contain a GMO ingredient, you won’t know it. (We asked Lean Cuisine about the meatloaf. The company never responded.)

Which ingredients?

Nature Valley Biscuits
Nature Valley.

Nature Valley Biscuits with Peanut Butter “contains bioengineered food ingredients.”

Which ingredients? Good question.

The loophole: The USDA’s rules prohibit the mandatory “contains” statement from naming ingredients (though they could be disclosed elsewhere on the label).

So you wouldn’t know that only the biscuits’ cornstarch contains modified DNA. (The company told us. It also said that the biscuits’ sugar and canola oil are “derived from bioengineering.”)

Non-GMO nuts?

365 sliced almonds
Whole Foods.

If you want non-GMO plain almonds, should you look for a Non-GMO Project Verified label? It doesn’t matter.

The loophole: All unseasoned almonds are non-GMO, because GMO nuts don’t exist. (Some flavorings, though, could contain GMO ingredients.)

That’s true for most plants. You won’t find GMO avocados, oats, pears, kale, berries, etc.

The Non-GMO Project doesn’t allow GMO or GMO-derived ingredients. But it does put its label on foods—like the unseasoned almonds—with no GMO counterpart. That’s misleading.

Can you trust Non-GMO Project Verified labels? The private Non-GMO Project says yes, but the government doesn’t approve “non-GMO” claims by Project Verified or others.

The bottom line

  • GMO (bioengineered) foods are safe. According to the National Academy of Sciences and the FDA, eating them poses no risk to your health.
  • Only a handful of plants are bioengineered. For most fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, beans, etc., GMO varieties don’t exist in the food supply.
  • Many foods will now have to disclose that they contain bioengineered ingredients. The disclosure won’t tell you which ingredients, though.
  • Disclosing “derived from” ingredients is voluntary. Oils, sugars, etc., made from bioengineered plants don’t have to be disclosed if no modified DNA remains in the ingredients.
  • More loopholes: Restaurants, “very small” companies, most alcohol, and foods with meat, poultry, or eggs as a major ingredient aren’t required to disclose bioengineered ingredients. The disclosures are required on supplements.
a bowl of oatmeal granola with peanuts blueberry and banana


Our best (free) healthy tips

Our free Healthy Tips newsletter offers a peek at what Nutrition Action subscribers get—healthy recipes, scrupulously researched advice about food of all kinds, staying healthy with diet and exercise, and more.

Sign up now