Food manufacturers have to put "bioengineered" on the label of their genetically altered foods—or just a confusing QR code.
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Genetically modified or engineered foods have been around for nearly 30 years. Most have been created in the lab to bring out beneficial traits—like apples that are less likely to brown, papayas that are less likely to fall victim to a deadly virus, or corn that'll be resistant to pests and herbicides.

Until January 1, 2022, it was completely voluntary for food manufacturers to label products that have been genetically modified. But now, a new US Department of Agriculture rule requires food manufacturers to label products that are bioengineered or derived from bioengineering.

But consumer safety experts are concerned that the more commonly used term, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is being replaced by one that people aren't familiar with—and that there are plenty of loopholes that companies can use to make it hard for consumers to make an informed choice.

Here's what you need to know about genetically modified foods—and how they're labeled.

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Only a few foods are genetically engineered

You don't have to worry that your blueberries or bananas are bioengineered. There's a short list of foods that have been genetically modified, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Several of them make up a lot of the building blocks of our food supply, such as canola (used in canola oil and margarine), corn (cornstarch and corn syrup), sugar beets (granulated sugar), and soybeans (soybean oil). Many of these pop up in prepared and processed foods.

Most papayas are genetically modified to help them resist ringspot, a harmful virus, and pink (or rosé) pineapples were genetically modified to be sweeter and have a pink hue.

There are very small percentages of some other crops that are genetically modified—alfalfa, summer squash, apples (specifically the Arctic apple, which is grown to reduce browning), and potatoes (Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, and Atlantic types, which were made resistant to bruising and blight, and reduced the amount of acrylamide—a potential carcinogen—produced when they are fried). 

The lion's share of GMO crops are fed to animals—and according to the USDA, 95 percent of the animals used for meat or dairy products eat bioengineered food. 

GMOs have been studied extensively for safety

There's been some debate about the potential health effects from eating genetically engineered products, but studies have indicated that GMO foods are safe to eat.

"People shouldn't be concerned about eating GMO products," says Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "There are plenty of studies that look at the potential risks and hazards, to make sure a new protein isn't a potential toxin or allergen. There's no evidence that foods made from GMO plants or animals have any food safety or human health risks."

Some consumer advocates, though, are concerned about the short time frame of current research. "There are no longer term studies confirming that they are healthy," says Meredith Stevenson, associate attorney at the Center for Food Safety, which is suing the USDA about the new labeling rules. 

But bioengineered foods create other concerns

Producing bioengineered foods may be better for crop yield, but they can be harsher to the environment. "There are environmental risks associated with genetically engineered crops," says Jaffe. "Some of the genetically engineered crops are designed to allow the spraying of an herbicide, which may increase the amount of herbicide and pesticide use. And growing corn or soybeans year after year after year can degrade the soil and impact the environment."

"The way that GMOs are produced is very harmful to the environment," Stevenson says. "We have a right to know what's in our food and how it's produced." 

The terms they're using have changed

You've probably heard of GMOs or genetically engineered crops before—but the new FDA rule about labeling has manufacturers using "bioengineered."

"The worst thing about this law is the fact they are using a term that consumers aren't familiar with," Jaffe says. "Many food companies wanted to use terms more familiar to consumers." 

Jaffe says that an education campaign may be necessary to help consumers understand the new term and what it means.

Food manufacturers have several different options for labeling GMO products

Manufacturers have a lot of leeway in how they label bioengineered food. "They can have it as a statement that says, 'this contains bioengineered ingredients,' on the same panel that has nutrition facts," Jaffe says. "They can also put a circular bioengineered symbol on the food. They can have you scan a QR code, and the website would identify what food you purchased, or they can say 'text this phone number for more information.'"

But critics say that the lack of consistency—and in particular, QR codes that require apps and cell service to use—makes it more difficult for consumers to get key information. "There was a study done to show that very few people would have access to QR codes—one-third had no smartphone and limited cell service, especially in rural areas," Stevenson says. 

There are loopholes around the labels

Some products may still have genetically engineered ingredients in them—even if they aren't labeled.

If the genetically modified food is used to produce oil, it doesn't have to be identified as bioengineered. "When you produce oil, you eliminate all of the DNA from the product," Jaffe says. "Genetically engineered corn oil and non-genetically engineered are biologically and chemically the same." 

Food manufacturers can also choose the testing method used to determine if there are traces of bioengineered ingredients. "There's no requirement for any specific testing method," Stevenson says. "The more modern tests are far more sensitive than tests from a few years ago. But they can use an older test." 

And sometimes, Mother Nature makes a little cross contamination happen—and you don't have to account for that. For instance, if you grow organic corn, but some of the pollen from your neighbor's bioengineered corn drifts on to your farm, you might have a few kernels that are now GMO. "If you have a product that inadvertently has a little genetic modification in it—less than 5 percent of the total ingredients—then you don't have to disclose it," Jaffe says. 

There are ways to avoid bioengineered foods

Try going organic, to start. "If you eat organic food, by definition, the producer cannot grow genetically engineered seeds or have any genetically modified inputs," Jaffe says.

You can also look for products that are certified to be non-GMOs by independent organizations like the Non-GMO Project

But keep in mind that some manufacturers will label their foods non-GMO as a marketing gimmick—even if there's no chance that the food could be genetically modified. "There are no genetically engineered oranges, so all orange juice is non-GMO," Jaffe says. "Some of these non-GMO certifications are misleading—because they suggest a comparison that doesn't exist."