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Labels for Genetically Engineered Food Generate Confusion

The design of new labels for genetically engineered foods is being questioned for appearing too biased, and not value-neutral. (USDA)
The design of new labels for genetically engineered foods is being questioned for appearing too biased, and not value-neutral. (USDA)
June 18, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some food and farming groups are scratching their heads over proposed labels for genetically engineered foods.

The long-awaited labels released by the United States Department of Agriculture stem from a 2016 federal law requiring the disclosure of foods produced using genetic engineering. But critics, including Paul Dorrance, owner and operator of Pastured Providence Farmstead in Chillicothe, believe the proposal falls short.

Dorrance said the USDA essentially rebranded genetically engineered foods to make them more palatable.

"Now they're calling it 'bioengineered,' or ‘B.E.,’” Dorrance said. “Right from the very beginning USDA is choosing a confusing, unknown type of label for something folks have been calling something else, like the commonly used term of 'genetically engineered foods.’"

Some industry organizations argue the term “genetically engineered” has generated negative connotations, and the new “B.E.” label is more impartial.

The draft proposal would allow the use of QR codes and text messages for product information. But Dorrance argued that discriminates against those without access to a smartphone.

The USDA has also proposed to exempting "highly refined" G.E. products such as sugars and oils - which would mean about 70 percent of G.E. products would not be labeled.

There are also concerns about the label symbols, which Dorrance pointed out are not value-neutral.

"They're bright yellow/green and colorful, picture of a leaf and a little bit of a farm behind this 'B.E.' And literally a smiley face, the sun is smiling,” he said. “It's this 'happy thoughts,’ clearly a biased symbol in favor of genetically engineered and genetically modified organisms. "

A recent poll found most Ohioans disapprove of genetically engineered foods, and a majority are in favor of G.E. food labeling. Dorrance said consumers want more transparency in food production.

"The Pandora's box has been opened and there's absolute outrage over this idea that large companies and food purveyors have unleashed this technology on the general public without our knowledge or consent," he said.

USDA is accepting public comments on the draft proposal until July 3. Groups, including the Center for Food Safety and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, are encouraging consumers to weigh in on the labels.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH