What's Wrong with USDA's 'Bioengineered' Label? NBC Botches the Story

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The USDA's "bioengineered" (GMO) food label is expensive and pointless, facts widely disseminated by the science community. The media has been critical of the new labeling regulations as well, though for the wrong reasons. Here's a textbook example from NBC News.

The USDA's “bioengineered” label now affixed to many products in grocery stores is a massive waste of money that will offer consumers no useful safety or nutrition information, something the agency itself acknowledges. Anyone with common sense should wonder why the federal government would waste literally billions of dollars on such a pointless project. The press has joined the chorus of voices objecting to the new labeling scheme, but as they're wont to do, they've overlooked the real issue.

Consider this recent story from NBC News: New USDA guidance requires foods with GMO ingredients be labeled 'bioengineered.' The key point, the author tells us, is that this specific attempt at GMO labeling is a loss to consumers and a win for “big food business,” because it uses language most people aren't familiar with:

"In 2018, then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue hailed the new label as another step toward … 'clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food.' But critics of the new labeling system cast it as nothing but a win for big food businesses — particularly by jettisoning the term 'GMO' from aisles, according to Marion Nestle, a semiretired professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University."

Just two sentences, yet so many mistakes. First, “big food business” spent many millions of dollars over several years lobbying against GMO labeling, as the anti-biotech Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has noted. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), the law that birthed these pointless labels, was a political maneuver to prevent individual states from enacting their own GMO labeling systems.

But that doesn't make the NBFDS a win for industry. Food companies still have to comply with the USDA's Byzantine regulations, which means paying lawyers to make sure they don't run afoul of the rules, sourcing different ingredients as necessary, and repackaging their products—and all for a law that serves no meaningful purpose.

As a longtime critic of crop biotechnology, it's no surprise that Marion Nestle framed the issue as she did. The companies—Ben & Jerry’s, Chipotle, Stonyfield Farm, Patagonia, among many others—that sell organic products at a premium wanted a big, ominous “GMO” label on their competitors' products as a way to stir up public opposition to biotech crops. As OCA co-founder Ronnie Cummins admitted in 2014, activists in the EU couldn't get an outright GMO ban passed, but they did get labeling rules enacted, which had much the same effect as a ban:

"Although EU grassroots forces failed to gain a continent-wide ban on the cultivation or import of GMOs, they were successful in pushing authorities to impose mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered foods, feeds and food ingredients in 1997. This, combined with strict pre-market safety-testing regulations, has marginalized or eliminated GMOs throughout the EU."

Nestle all but told NBC the same thing last week; the new labels aren't threatening enough:

"Nestle even mocked the 'bucolic' label that's supposed to tell consumers a food product has been genetically modified. "It (GMO) has a pejorative connotation about it. Everybody knows it and it's what everybody wants to avoid,''she told NBC News on Thursday. "GMOs are now gone and the label for genetically modified foods is now 'bioengineered,' whatever that means. It sounds much less threatening. It's adorable."

Quoting a food and beverage management expert from Cornell University, NBC also noted that the NBFDS contains all sorts of loopholes, a point critics of the law have also made. For example, food derived from animals fed genetically engineered (GE) crops is exempt from labeling.

We could quibble about individual exemptions, but the very concept of GMO labeling is the ultimate problem. A steak made from a cow that consumed GE feed is no more or no less nutritious than an “organic” steak. The same point applies to literally any food you'll find in the grocery store. Avoiding “GMOs” will not improve your health in any way.

With the media so ostensibly concerned about rampant scientific “misinformation,” you'd think they could accurately report basic facts about crop biotechnology and food safety, but, sadly, that appears to be an insurmountable hurdle for NBC.