Q: I want to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) when I buy food. But I still don’t understand the current labels on products, and I read that GMO labels based on a new law might start appearing. Can you provide a rundown of what I need to know to stay away from GMOs when I shop?

Knowing how to avoid buying genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), was confusing for consumers before the USDA published its final National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) in the Federal Register on December 21, 2018. Believe it or not, the new law actually has made the whole process even more convoluted!

Under the new law, some products may disclose that they are bioengineered in 2020; others by 2022. But don’t take that disclosure too seriously. Consumer groups have spoken out against many loopholes and omissions in the new law. “The USDA has betrayed the public trust by denying Americans the right to know how their food is produced,” says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the Center for Food Safety. “Instead of providing clarity and transparency, they have created large-scale confusion and uncertainty for consumers, food producers, and retailers.” According to the Non-GMO Project, the new law:

  • Exempts most products that have been processed and refined, which means the majority of GMO foods. A product can have many different highly refined GMO ingredients and still not be labeled under this law.
  • Largely exempts GMO ingredients developed through new techniques such as CRISPR or RNAi because many do not contain detectable GMO DNA.
  • Does not use the term GMO. Instead, labels will say “bioengineered” or “derived from bioengineering.” Using this confusing terminology misleads consumers: More than 95 percent of consumers are familiar with the term GMO, but most people do not understand what bioengineered food means.
  • Fails to include any technical requirements to ensure that GMO testing is meaningful (e.g., testing method, accreditation of labs, sampling plan requirements).
  • Doesn’t keep up with the rapid introduction of new GMOs: it only updates its list of GMO foods once per year.
  • Allows a 5 percent-per-ingredient level for GMO contamination. For context, the European Union and the Non-GMO Project both use a 0.9 percent level for most foods.
  • Does not require products that need a bioengineered disclosure to have a plain-text label. Consumers may need to scan QR codes, visit websites, send text messages, or make telephone calls to find out if some of their food contains GMOs.
  • Does not apply to animal feed. Therefore, meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals fed a GMO diet will not require disclosure.
  • Has no penalty for failing to comply with the law. In contrast, the USDA’s National Organic Program levies fines of up to $11,000 per violation.

These shortcomings and exemptions—coupled with a lack of fines for non-compliance—prevent the law from delivering meaningful disclosure of food produced using GMOs. So what’s a consumer to do?

How to Avoid GMOs

The good news is that we actually can learn to identify and avoid GMOs with confidence when we shop even without reliable GMO labeling mandated by the government. As I explain in my book Going Against GMOs, there are four tried-and-true guidelines for shunning GMO products. They are:

1. Buy Organic

Foods labeled with the USDA Organic seal are produced without the use of GMOs, synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, and antibiotics and artificial growth hormones (in the production of meat, dairy, and eggs).

Foods labeled with the USDA Organic seal are produced without the use of GMOs, synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, and antibiotics and artificial growth hormones (in the production of meat, dairy, and eggs). Farmers and processors must show that they are not using GMOs; however, organic certification does not require testing for GMOs.

2. Look for Non-GMO Project Verified Seals

Products that carry the Non-GMO Project Verified seal are independently verified to be in compliance with North America’s most rigorous standard for GMO avoidance, including testing of at-risk ingredients.

Products that carry the Non-GMO Project Verified seal are independently verified to be in compliance with North America’s most rigorous standard for GMO avoidance, including testing of at-risk ingredients. Fortunately, the USDA’s final rule allows Non-GMO Project Verified claims, so looking for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal remains an easy and accessible way for consumers to avoid GMOs.

3. Learn & Avoid the At-Risk Foods

Currently, the following genetically modified foods are available in the U.S.: alfalfa, Arctic apples, canola, corn, cotton, eggplant, papaya, pink pineapple, potatoes, AquAdvantage salmon, soybeans, sugar beets, yellow squash, and zucchini. Either avoid these foods and products containing them, or choose Non-GMO Project Verified or USDA Organic versions.

4. Upgrade Your Animal Protein

Avoid conventional meats and dairy products from animals or farmed fish that are fed GMO feed. Switch to wild-caught fish, and eggs, poultry, meat, and dairy products labeled USDA Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified. 

Read our article on 7 Ways to Eat out GMO-Free.

Non-GMO vs. Organic: Which Is Better?

Buying products labeled Non-GMO Project Verified or USDA Organic are both excellent ways to steer clear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But do you know how to distinguish the difference between the two?

Products that have the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, the square box with a butterfly, are free of GMOs and have been tested for at-risk ingredients. However, products with this label still could be sprayed with synthetic chemical pesticides.

In contrast, products that have the USDA Organic seal cannot, by law, contain any GMO ingredients. Organic foods also must be produced without irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics, and growth hormones, and without synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic foods, according to reviews of multiple studies.

What’s the bottom line? Overall, buying organic is better for people and planet: It supports an environmentally beneficial food production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people.

To be as safe as possible, choose USDA Organic foods, preferably those that are also Non-GMO Project Verified. Selecting products with the two seals together gives extra assurance and the strongest protection against GMOs, particularly for foods that are commonly genetically modified, such as corn, soy, and sugar.

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