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Government lays out the rules for labeling for genetically modified foods

Key Points
  • U.S. consumers will see labels on food products that contain genetically modified ingredients as early as 2020.
  • The guidelines allow disclosure of bioengineered ingredients in one of three formats: text, a symbol or a digital link printed on packaging.
Delegate Vani Hari holds signs that say 'Label GMOs' during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

U.S. consumers will see labels on food products that contain genetically modified ingredients as early as 2020, federal officials said Thursday.

The USDA on Thursday released the first national disclosure requirements for foods that have been altered in a way that doesn't occur naturally.

The fight over whether or not to label foods with genetically modified ingredients, also called genetically engineered foods and GMOs, has raged for years. Advocates say consumers should know how their food is made, and opponents worry consumers will interpret labels on bioengineered foods as a warning on foods many agree are safe.

The guidelines, which use the term "bioengineered" instead of the more commonly used "genetically modified," allow disclosure of bioengineered ingredients in several formats: in text, a symbol, a digital link printed on packaging or text message.

Companies can use a QR code with a statement like: "Scan here for more food information." After scanning the code, consumers will be brought to a website where genetically modified foods will be disclosed. If a company provides a digital link disclosure, it must also provide a telephone number consumers can call for information. Critics say companies that use the QR code should be required to include the word "bioengineered" in their statement.

H/O: Bioengineering 4

The symbol disclosure can be printed in black and white or color.

Advocates of multiple labeling options say it will be easier for companies to comply with the guidelines, but opponents fear it will confuse consumers or restrict access for those without smartphones.

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, called digital labeling "irresponsible." The group sued the Trump administration in July to release documents related to the guidelines.

"That that is considered to be adequate labeling under these regulations is, I think, anti-consumer, discriminatory and illegal," Kimbrell said. "And it's also a terrible precedent. What if they start doing that with nutrition labeling?"

Under the guidelines, products that have been processed to the point where genetically modified DNA can't be detected, like refined beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup and oils, won't have to be labeled.

The guidelines also make accommodations for smaller companies, including a later implementation date and different labeling. Small food manufacturers also have additional labeling options that include disclosing genetically modified ingredients on the label with a telephone number or website address.

Ken Harris, managing partner at Cadent Consulting Group, said national guidelines will help food manufacturers make choices about whether or not they want to keep genetically modified ingredients in their products by defining what these organisms are. Having guidelines are helpful, he said, because without them manufacturers are "chasing a moving target."

The USDA created the guidelines after Congress passed a law in 2016 to include a disclosure of bioengineered food in the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929. The mandatory compliance date is Jan. 1, 2022, but the disclosures could start as early as Jan. 1, 2020, the USDA said.

Correction: This story was revised to correct that the USDA announcement was made on Thursday.

Correction: This story was revised to correct that the USDA announcement was made on Thursday.