What is a bioengineered food and why do some food packages now have that label?

New labels don’t necessarily make the GMO debate any clearer for consumers

As of Jan. 1, 2022, food manufacturers are required to comply with new food labeling requirements for bioengineered foods and ingredients. (KSAT)

You may have noticed a new label on some foods from the grocery store with a word that some people are finding disconcerting or at the least confusing — “bioengineered.”

So what is a bioengineered food ingredient and why are those labels suddenly showing up on food packaging?

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In 2016, Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard requiring food manufacturers, importers, and certain retailers to disclose foods that have been bioengineered, and Jan. 1, 2022, was the date for mandatory compliance.

You may be more familiar with the terms “genetically modified,” or “GMO.” The new standard replaces those terms with “bioengineered,” or “BE.”

Are bioengineered foods safe?

A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee examined in-depth the potential negative effects and benefits of genetically engineered crops.

The committee found no substantiated evidence that foods from bioengineered crops were any less safe than foods from non-bioengineered crops. The FDA also says that bioengineered foods are safe to eat and pose no risk to your health.

Bioengineered foods don’t contain any more antibiotics or steroids than non-bioengineered versions of foods. The crops aren’t changed in any ways that would increase the risk for cancer, and they’re no more likely to cause allergies than non-bioengineered foods, the FDA says.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the debate on bioengineered foods. There are also questions about how it affects the farming industry, soil, and the evolution of weeds and insect populations.

The National Academies of Sciences commission said that “sweeping statements about GE crops are problematic because issues related to them are multidimensional.”

In other words — it’s complicated.

What is bioengineered food?

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard defines bioengineered foods as “those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

A bioengineered food or ingredient must contain some of the newly introduced DNA.

The FDA says humans have been using selective breeding and cross-breeding of plants and animals for more desirable traits for thousands of years.

Since the 1980s, biologists have used genetic engineering in plants to express desirable traits, including longer shelf-life, higher vitamin content or disease resistance.

Most of those crop varieties are NOT in commercial production.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the first GMO or bioengineered vegetables became available for consumers.

Fact: Human insulin as a treatment for diabetes was the first GMO product approved by the FDA in 1982.

Which foods are bioengineered?

There are currently more than a dozen crops and foods that are legally bioengineered.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a list of any BE crops or foods that are currently in legal production throughout the world. The list is updated once a year, and new BE products are continuing to be developed, so the list may not include every product and the ways that it has been bioengineered.

List of bioengineered foods as of February 2022:

Why are foods bioengineered?

Plants are bioengineered to express desirable traits and make them easier to grow or sell.

Many of the plants on the list have genes that make them resistant to insects or diseases.

The United Nations has said that genetically modified crops could possibly relieve global food shortages.

If you’ve come across one of the new bioengineered food labels, there’s a good chance it was a product that contained soybeans, canola, corn or potatoes.

So, take potatoes for example. You’ve probably heard of the great Irish potato famine.

Potatoes were the main source of food for most people in Ireland in the early to mid-1800s, but especially for tenant farmers and poor people. It’s estimated that 80% of their calories came from potatoes. From 1845 to 1849, all of the potato crops were destroyed by a disease called late blight.

A disease called late blight destroyed the leaves and edible roots of the potato plants in successive years from 1845 to 1849. It’s estimated that about one million people died as a result of the famine.

The same disease destroyed more than half of the tomato crop in the eastern United States in 1946.

There is a national website that tracks late blight in the U.S. The website says the disease is still a major threat to food security worldwide, and it’s estimated that crop losses and the cost of control measures exceed 6.7 billion dollars a year.

Some potatoes have now been bioengineered to be protected against late blight in addition to insects. Some are also bioengineered to reduce black spots, bruising and sugars.

You can click on the list of foods above to see which genes were modified and which traits are affected.

Which products must be labeled as BE?

Food manufacturers, importers, and retailers who package and label food for retail or bulk food sales are required to follow the new standard, but restaurants do not.

Food manufacturers must include one of four labeling options:

  • The words “bioengineered food” for single-ingredient foods or “contains a bioengineered food ingredient” printed on the packaging.
  • One of two logos approved by the USDA.
  • An electronic or digital link (QR code) with the printed instructions to “scan here for more food information” or similar language and must include a phone number for more food information.
  • A text message disclosure statement that says “Text [command word] to [number] for bioengineered food information.”

The new standard does not apply to foods that are primarily meat, catfish, poultry, dairy or eggs — meaning if one of those is listed as the first ingredient, then it’s not subject to the new labeling standard. It’s also not required in products whose first ingredient is broth or stock and whose second ingredient is meat, catfish, poultry, dairy or eggs.

It’s also not required in foods that are so highly processed that any modified genetic material is undetectable.

Opposition to BE foods and the Non-GMO Project

Most groups that oppose BE and GMO foods argue that there is a lack of proper regulation and a lack of unbiased scientific research on the long-term human and environmental health impacts.

Some of the bioengineered foods are designed to resist herbicides, resulting in more of the chemicals being used and therefore impacting ecosystems — plants, pollinators, soils and surrounding communities.

The Center for Food Safety, a group that advocated against the “harmful impacts of industrial agriculture,” has filed a lawsuit saying the final labeling regulations use confusing language or QR codes and leave the majority of GMO-derived foods unlabeled.

“These regulations are not about informing the public but rather designed to allow corporations to hide their use of genetically engineered ingredients from their customers,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “It is a regulatory scam, which we are seeking to rescind in federal court. In addition, we are urging our million CFS members and others to become citizen investigators and find and expose the companies that are using QR codes instead of on-package text or symbol labeling, thereby trying to keep us in the dark about what they have put in our food.”

You may be familiar with another common food label — the image of a butterfly on a leaf with the words “NON GMO Project Verified.”

The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization aimed at building and protecting a non-GMO food supply.

Their mission is focused on the belief that consumers have a right to know what is in their food and to have access to non-GMO choices in addition to protecting traditional seed breeding and the supply of non-GMO seeds. They say the labels are a way to help consumers “vote with their dollars” when they shop.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System says those Non-GMO labels are not regulated and are just a tool for marketing and says all of our food is genetically modified, while only a few (listed above) are bioengineered.

But the Non-GMO Project says it’s the BE labels that are the misleading ones, insisting they don’t go far enough and can confuse consumers.

“Bioengineered is supposed to mean GMO, but it uses a much more narrow definition than consumers expect from other certifications. Per the USDA’s definition, bioengineered foods must contain modified genetic material, which leaves out many products made with GMOs,” the group posted in a blog on its website.

The group argues that “nothing in nature exists in a vacuum.”

“Whether a GMO is created by combining genes from multiple species or by rearranging or silencing genes within a species, the fundamental premise remains the same — the flawed idea that genes can be reduced to isolated functions, without regard for the complex interplay of the entire genome,” said Non-GMO Project Executive Director Megan Westgate.

Want to learn more?

Here are some links to other resources about bioengineered and genetically modified foods:

About the Author

Julie Moreno has worked in local television news for more than 25 years. She came to KSAT as a news producer in 2000. After producing thousands of newscasts, she transitioned to the digital team in 2015. She writes on a wide variety of topics from breaking news to trending stories and manages KSAT’s daily digital content strategy.

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