On July 29th 2016, President Obama signed bill 746 into law requiring that all genetically modified ingredients be labeled on food packaging. This act, (also known as the DARK Act, nicknamed after the phrase Denying Americans the Right to Know) has been criticized for being a disguised means of favoring the interests of agribusiness over consumer information and product transparency. On paper, the act states that it aims to “establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard with respect to any bioengineered food and any food that may be bioengineered.” In practice, however, this law will make it much more difficult to obtain information on whether a meal or food product might contain ingredients that are genetically modified. This law also nullifies state-led efforts to more stringently label GMOs, as was the case in Vermont.
Bill 746 tightly regulates the definition of what constitutes a bioengineered food. For example, foods derived from animals fed GMO crops would be exempt from this labeling requirement. Moreover, it may be difficult to label bioengineered animals if they do make it to market, as the methods used to engineer them may fall outside of the scope of the current GMO definition (as of now, salmon is the only genetically modified meat approved for sale, although it has not made it to market yet).
Another major controversy of the DARK Act is that labels do not have to clearly state that a given product contains GMOs. Alternatively, food manufacturers will be allowed to print either a 1-800 number for a consumer to call, or a QR code to be scanned with a smartphone in order to inquire about the ingredients within the package. Critics of this act argue that a large segment of the population (such as the elderly, poor, and rural-dwelling Americans), will find it difficult to access this data. And of course, it will be highly inconvenient for even the most technologically savvy individual to call a 1-800 number or scan a code for every food item purchased at the grocery store.
The enforcement of this law will commence in two years for large food manufacturers, while smaller companies will benefit from a three-year grace period. During this time, the Secretary of Agriculture will establish the mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standards as well as the corresponding requirements (the law as it is remains vague in this regard). In the meantime, if you remain passionate about avoiding GMOs, below are a few steps you can take to ensure that your meals are GMO-free:
1. Buy organic
Organic foods cannot contain genetically modified ingredients, and so the easiest means of avoiding GMOs is simply to shop organic. Federal regulations state that in order for a product to carry the organic label, methods “used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes” are prohibited. These methods include “cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology).”
2. Purchase the Non-GMO Project verified foods
Foods that display the Non-GMO Project butterfly label have been verified to be free of genetically modified ingredients. An increasing number of food manufacturers and retailers have gone through their rigorous verification system, and carry the project’s logo. According to the Non-GMO Project website, this new law does not affect their GMO-free verification system or prohibit these companies from placing the logo on their packaging.
3. Avoid packaged foods
A staggering 70 percent of packaged foods contain genetically modified ingredients! One of the easiest means of avoiding GMOs is to simply purchase fresh foods and produce which are naturally free of ingredients such as corn syrup and corn starch, canola oil, sugar beets, cottonseed and soy in the form of hydrolyzed vegetable protein, all of which are likely genetically modified. With the exception of papaya, edamame, zucchini and yellow summer squash, which are approved to be genetically engineered and are widely sold in stores, buying fresh produce and enjoying a home-cooked meal is healthier for you and the environment, and increases the likelihood that your food is GMO-free.
4. Know thy farmer
Many farms are in fact small businesses that might not be able to shoulder the expense or administrative burden of the above noted certifications. Shopping at your local farmers market will allow you to not only enjoy fresh produce at peak flavor, but also provide you with the opportunity to speak with the farmers about their growing practices. You can ask questions about whether or not they use genetically modified seeds, if and how they avoid cross-contamination, their policies regarding the use of pesticides and herbicides, and more.
5. Choose your meats and animal products wisely
Although salmon is the only meat that has been approved to be genetically modified, much of the the animal feed used today contains genetically modified ingredients such as corn, soy, and alfalfa. The new law would not require the disclosure of this information. The best way to avoid meats and animal products (such as eggs, butter, milk, cheese, etc.) that may have been contaminated by GMOs is to look for products with the organic or Non-GMO Project label. When it comes to fish, purchasing wild caught varieties is the easiest way to avoid GMOs (farm-raised fish may have been raised on feed containing genetically modified ingredients).
6. …and in two years, prepare to shop with your smartphone!
Once this law is implemented, you can likely expect to use your smartphone to scan QR codes to learn more about what is in your food, in addition to the above methods.