"That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare said. But would calling foods and ingredients “bioengineered” rather than “genetically modified” make them more acceptable to consumers?

USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) received over 14,000 comments about its May 4, 2018, proposed rule outlining provisions of the new National Bioengineered Foods Disclosure Standards (NBFDS). The comment period closed on June 3, and at press time, final regulations were slated for release in early December.


Naming controversy

Many of the comments object to the use of “bioengineered” and the smiling “BE” logo rather than the more familiar term “GMO.” The rule “defines ‘bioengineering’ with respect to a food, as referring to 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 new regulations (https://tinyurl.com/ya5y8kye) detail the conditions under which manufacturers must use the terms “bioengineered food” or “contains a bioengineered food ingredient.”


GMO issues

Comments covered a range of issues, including the use of digital disclosure via a QR code, how highly refined ingredients derived from sugars and oils would be classified, classification for incidental additives and processing aids, and appropriate threshold levels that would trigger mandatory disclosure.

Nearly 90% of the corn, soybeans and sugar beets in the United States are from bioengineered sources. One issue was whether or not highly refined oils and sugars from these crops should be labeled as bioengineered, thus significantly increasing the number of food products that are required to be labeled as BE.

Another issue is the threshold level for disclosure. In a letter to AMS, the International Dairy Foods Association suggested that “USDA adopt a threshold of nine-tenths of one percent (0.9%) of the finished product.” The alternative proposal was 5%. Congress directed AMS to minimize impact on both domestic and international supply chains, and several comments suggested that the lower level would minimize trade conflicts.


Good news for dairy

The good news for the dairy industry is that the regulations prohibit a food derived from an animal (e.g., milk) from being considered BE solely because the animal consumed feed from a bioengineered source. This is in contrast to the provisions of the Non-GMO Project. According to its website, https://livingnongmo.org/, “the Non-GMO Project verification is the only seal in the marketplace that requires ongoing GMO testing of feed.” Milk must be derived from herds consuming non-GMO feed to qualify for the seal.

A recent white paper by Cargill examined consumer interest in GMOs. The research found that GMOs are avoided by more purchasers of yogurt and dairy alternatives than by buyers of ice cream and flavored milks.

“In light of some consumers’ GMO concerns, Cargill continues to expand its Non-GMO Project Verified ingredient offerings,” said Kailee Petersen, starch product line manager, Cargill.

USDA’s goal was to publish the final regulation by the end of this year so that BE/GMO label changes could align with changes to the nutrition labels. However, it is not clear if that synchronization will happen, and many companies have already adopted the new nutrition label format.

Final publication of the new rule will certainly not end the controversy over genetic modification of food and feed ingredients. As a food scientist, I strive to educate consumers about the advantages of using modern technologies, including bioengineering. Hopefully in their final form, the new BE regulations will promote transparency without stifling technology and innovation.