It's Official: G.M.O. Labels Are Slated to Change Nationwide

August  1, 2016

This story, originally published on July 14, 2016, has been updated as of August 1.

President Obama has signed into law a bill that requires the labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients; the U.S.D.A. has two years to write the rules.

And this gives most Americans what we want: According to a December Associated Press-GfK poll, two-thirds of us support labeling of G.M.O. ingredients on food packages.

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Well, sort of.

Photo by James Ransom

As the New York Times reports, the law allows manufacturers to label packages either with a symbol that indicates G.M.O. ingredients or with a Q.R. code that can be scanned with a smartphone for more information. And it overrides the strict G.M.O. legislation that went into action in Vermont on July 1 (some companies, like Campbell's and Dannon, have already started to comply with Vermont's law nationwide; others have taken their products off state shelves); but unlike that law, this one does not impose penalties or fines for noncompliance, which has caused some proponents of labeling to deem it a voluntary labeling compromise.

And, even with icons and QR codes, "manufacturers would not be required to provide information on how a food was modified or why." That has people are arguing that the labeling bill does not do nearly enough. Here's the New York Times' editorial board's take:

The biggest problem with the Senate bill is that—instead of requiring a simple label, as the Vermont law does—it would allow food companies to put the information in electronic codes that consumers would have to scan with smartphones or at scanners installed by grocery stores. The only reason to do this would be to make the information less accessible to the public.

According to Eater, the F.D.A. has argued that the law's definition of "bioengineering" is too narrow, which will permit many foods that come from genetically engineered sources to slip through the cracks and remain unlabeled.

Even members of the G.M.O. industry advocate for more transparency on the proposed labels: "It doesn’t make sense to advocate a better understanding of biotechnology in one breath and, in the other, tell consumers they don’t need to know when that technology is used to make their food," explains Jason Kelly, the co-founder and C.E.O. of the G.M.O. company Gingko Bioworks. Does it do more harm than good to shroud G.M.O.s in secrecy?

Photo by James Ransom

Still, on the other side of the debate, are those who believe that "blanket labeling of all products that contain any trace of in-vitro recombinant DNA technology only further polarizes discussion, penalizing all use of the technology and limiting the odds of implementing it as judiciously and safely as possible." And others who argue that the organic industry hinges on scaring consumers about G.M.O.s—and that labels promote this fear-mongering.

Beyond asking yourself whether you believe GMOs are beneficial or harmful in terms of human health, the environment, and the global food shortages (the answers are nuanced, yes), consider these questions, as well:

  • What kind of information do you want on your food packages (and how much)?
  • How should this information be communicated: in plain language, in a QR code, in an image or icon?
  • Even if GMOs have been proven safe, is there still a reason for their presence in food to be evident on the package?
Photo by James Ransom

And to get (and stay) informed about what's happening with G.M.O.s. in the news, on both sides of the debate, read on:

Share your opinion on G.M.O.s and labeling laws in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Leslie
  • Sandi Andresen
    Sandi Andresen
  • Sean R
    Sean R
  • marcellatp
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Leslie July 15, 2016
There is more to this than simply going against nature to produce a seed for food. The main issue is the grossly increased use of pesticides used on GMO crops, the residue being seen in mothers' milk and human urine generations down. These chemicals are known to not only be carcinogenic but to also cause neurological and gastrointestinal issues. Allergies are now suspected. Science is FINALLY started to acknowledge the affect of these pesticides on parkinsons disease and a host of others, Next, consider the impact of our seeds being "owned" by one or two major corporations and the long term benefit to these corporations to our detriment. FRIGHTENING!!!! It is a known fact that Monsanto has paid "shills" who write pro GMO articles and have set up pro GMO websites under very professional, ecologically minded names. It is also a known fact that independent scientists have been questioning the safety of GMO's for years, and Monsanto has spent millions to silence and discredit them. Interesting that the media has been so silent on this, other than to publish biotech sponsored articles when this is something that will have a profound affect on humans and world power.
Sandi A. July 14, 2016
I don't know if some or all GMOs are safe, but I don't think they have been around long enough for the final determinations to be in. Some probably are, but some may not be. I simply want to know what I'm eating, and when the big food companies try to hide what they are doing, that gets my antennae twitching and my feet ready to dig in in protest. Don't treat me like I'm stupid! I don't trust anybody who treats me like a blithering idiot who hasn't the sense God gave a goose. That also makes me very angry.
Sean R. July 14, 2016
"Beyond asking yourself whether you believe GMOs are beneficial or harmful...". My attention went straight to "believe". Maybe because that's how we tend to form our opinions. Out of belief. Impressions. Feelings. On this particular topic, perhaps fear?

I think the issues are complex and poorly explained by the media. Either GMOs will cause spontaneous explosions of tumors or they're a bioengineering magnum opus. Most of all, I'd like to know WHY "most developed nations" have restricted the production and sale of GMOs (see the Non-GMO Project propaganda site). Is it an (understandable) abundance of caution? To protect the economy, agriculture, or --truly-- human health?

I will say this, simply: I have no fear of science. Instead, I aim to be skeptical of everyone and everything.
marcellatp July 14, 2016
This sounds like it's going to work like the signs we have in California that say "this store sells products that contain cancer causing chemicals" and you see it as you walk into a huge store like Costco or Target or something. There is no way to know what of the thousands of products the sign could be referring to. It gets ignored and people move on and nothing actually changes. I think that's what companies who pushed for the labels to be like this are hoping for. That the label/qr code will just become more noise that gets ignored.