Final USDA rule on labeling bioengineered foods may lead to consumer confusion, says CSPI
Statement of CSPI biotechnology director Gregory Jaffe
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finally completed the regulations for disclosure of bioengineered food ingredients required by the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law. CSPI generally supports the final rule because it finally gives the information to consumers in a uniform manner. However, the rule is complex and much education of consumers will be needed before consumers will understand the newly disclosed information.
Some aspects of the mandatory disclosures rule finalized by USDA are not in the best interest of consumers. First, the term “bioengineered” is unfamiliar to most consumers. CSPI advocated for the more familiar and scientifically accurate term “genetically engineered.” Second, highly processed ingredients which are derived from genetically engineered crops, such as sugar and corn oil, will not be disclosed on a mandatory basis, but could be disclosed on a voluntary basis. These ingredients are chemically indistinguishable from their counterparts not produced by genetic engineering. Despite this, most studies have shown that consumers expect highly processed ingredients to be labeled and many food manufacturers want to provide that information. CSPI agrees with the decision to disclose highly processed ingredients as “derived from bioengineering” but disagrees with USDA’s decision to not mandate that disclosure. By making the disclosure of this information voluntary, consumers will be confused when one product voluntarily discloses that is it “derived from bioengineering” and an identical product has no such disclosure.
The final rule also does not specify when a food can be voluntarily labeled as “non-GMO.” There has been a proliferation of non-GMO claims in the marketplace for foods such as water, salt, and orange juice that don’t have any bioengineered counterpart. Such misleading labeling by food manufacturers takes advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge to suggest their products are different from similar non-labeled products. USDA or another agency needs to address this issue if consumers are going to have confidence in the many different label claims in the marketplace.
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