- The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that food companies will have until 2022 to label their GMO crops.
- The decision follows a longtime battle between food companies and consumer groups, who argue that USDA regulations make it possible to mislead the public.
- Critics are also concerned that companies aren't required to label highly-refined ingredients that come from GMO crops such as cane sugar, corn syrup, and processed vegetable oil.
The US Department of Agriculture has finally set a timeline for food companies to disclose their use of genetically engineered ingredients.
After years of back-and-forth between manufacturers and consumer groups, the department announced that all US companies must label their GMO crops by 2022.
But there's a catch: Companies will not be required to label highly-refined ingredients that come from GMO crops, as long as there's no evidence of genetically engineered material. That means things like cane sugar, corn syrup, and processed vegetable oil could escape the labelling process, or be labelled on a voluntary basis.
In a statement, the National Milk Producers Federation said they were "pleased" with the USDA's decision not to require labels for milk produced by animals that consume bioengineered feed.
"NMPF told Congress that any regulation requiring the labelling of bioengineered products must be science-based," the group said. "This rule codifies our position."
What's in a label?
The USDA's announcement is music to the ears of many food companies and manufacturers, who lobbied for more time following a 2016 mandate for a nationwide GMO labelling system.
The companies now have about three years to decide how to label their products. Under the 2016 law, companies have the option to use direct language or a digital code or symbol to reveal the presence of genetically-engineered ingredients.
Some consumer groups worry that a scanning system would make the information too inconspicuous to the public.
Other groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, are concerned that there's no rule to prevent items like water and orange juice from being labelled as non-GMO, when there are no GMO versions being sold on the market in the first place.
What's so bad about a GMO product?
For the most part, the scientific community considers GMOs to be safe for consumption.
Three major scientific organisations - the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the European Commission - have all publicly stated that GMOs don't present a harm to human health.
Even Bill Gates has referred to GMOs as a promising tool with the potential to reduce starvation and malnutrition. By fortifying crops with certain staple nutrients, countries could help ensure that citizens don't go hungry or fall prey to disease.
In the US, it's nearly impossible to avoid consuming GMOs. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that around 70% to 80% of the food we consume in America contains genetically engineered ingredients.
But environmental groups have expressed concern that GMO crops are more resistant to herbicides, which may or may not be carcinogenic.
A war over consumer rights
As the debate about food safety goes on, some consumer groups have adopted a simpler argument: Americans have a right to know what's in their food.
In an online statement, the Environmental Working Group called the USDA's latest decision "unlawful" and "disappointing."
"At a time when consumers are asking more and more questions about the use of genetic engineering, today's rule will further undermine the technology by sowing greater confusion among Americans," the organisation wrote.
But some food companies said they could be trusted to disclose information on their own.
In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, the general counsel for the Grocery Manufacturers Association called the USDA's announcement "a sound decision to empower industry to give [consumers] more information."