USDA bioengineered food labels are coming in 2021. Will they change consumer behavior?

Credit: Getty Images/USDA
Credit: Getty Images/USDA

Four years after the thunder in Congress over labeling foods made with GMO ingredients, the deadline for compliance with the USDA labeling regulation is in sight — the end of 2021 — despite complaints that the rule is riddled with loopholes that exempt many foods.

Under the rule, food makers have four options for indicating GMO ingredients, ranging from saying so on the package to a fingernail-size QR code, so consumers may find it difficult to identify a GMO food. The labels will say bioengineered, rather than the more commonly used GMO, which also might dilute their impact. And disclosure is discretionary for some GMO ingredients, most prominently corn and soy oils from biotech plants.

As many as one of every six foods containing GMOs may be exempt from labeling because of USDA loopholes, says the Environmental Working Group. Highly refined sugars and oils from corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets were exempted because they do not contain detectable amounts of genetic material, but food companies can disclose them if they want.

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But an amble through the grocery aisles will find few GMO labels, at least at this point, on breakfast cereals, many of which are sugar-sweetened; on pancake syrups, many of which are made with corn syrup; or crackers, chips, and cookies, which use sweeteners and cooking oils.

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