The Evolution of Bioengineered Foods: A Comprehensive Analysis

In recent years, the topic of bioengineered foods has sparked intense debate and controversy. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) in the United States has been a focal point of these discussions. However, opinions on the NBFDS vary widely among stakeholders in the food industry. Some argue that the standard fails to capture the full scope of bioengineered products, while others see it as a costly bureaucratic burden without clear consumer benefits. This article aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the NBFDS and its implications for the food industry.

Defining Bioengineered Foods

One of the major points of contention surrounding the NBFDS is its narrow definition of bioengineered foods. According to the standard, bioengineered foods are those that “contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.” This definition excludes meat and dairy from animals fed genetically modified (GM) feed, as well as highly refined oils and sweeteners made from GM crops. It also raises questions about the classification of gene-edited foods.

Gene-edited foods occupy a gray area within the NBFDS. While they may not contain detectable genetic material modified through traditional methods, determining whether they meet the criteria of being “cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature” is challenging. The proliferation of gene-edited products and the use of synthetic biology have further complicated this issue.

Synthetic Biology and New Forms of Genetic Engineering

Synthetic biology is a field that involves re-tooling the DNA of microbes to produce various substances, such as flavors, sweeteners, and proteins. Some of these products, like Perfect Day’s ‘animal-free’ whey protein or Cargill’s EverSweet Reb M sweetener, may not trigger a bioengineered label if no genetically modified material is detectable in the final product. However, products like Motif FoodWorks’ ‘meaty’ animal-free heme protein myoglobin, which is also produced using a genetically engineered strain of yeast, may require a bioengineered disclosure.

Interestingly, even within the same ingredient category, the labeling requirements can vary. For example, Belgian startup Paleo has engineered a strain of yeast to express myoglobin in an extra-cellular fashion, which allows for easier separation of myoglobin from the yeast cells. As a result, their myoglobin would not trigger bioengineered labeling in the US and would not be subject to EU GMO regulations. These varying requirements create challenges for companies aiming to comply with the NBFDS.

Enforcement Challenges and Complaints

Enforcement of the NBFDS has proven to be a complex issue. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is responsible for handling complaints related to violations of the standard. However, since the implementation of the NBFDS, only seven complaints have been filed. This limited number of complaints makes it difficult to identify areas that companies are likely to challenge.

One of the challenges in enforcing the NBFDS is the lack of clarity regarding labeling requirements for certain products, particularly those involving microbes. The standard does not provide clear guidelines for labeling such products, except in specific cases like certain probiotics. Additionally, the issue of “actual knowledge” of bioengineered ingredients adds another layer of complexity. While the USDA has stated that it will not proactively enforce the standard, the lack of well-structured complaints hinders our understanding of potential areas of contention.

On-Pack Disclosure Options

The NBFDS allows for multiple disclosure options on food packaging. These options include on-pack text, USDA-approved symbols, electronic or digital links, and text message disclosures. Voluntary disclosures are also permitted for foods derived from bioengineered sources. However, the use of digital disclosure options has faced legal challenges.

Recently, a lawsuit brought by the Center for Food Safety and others led to revisions in the digital disclosure options. The court ruling required the USDA to make revisions consistent with Congressional requirements for consumer access. This ruling has implications for companies currently using QR codes or text message options. It is important to note that the QR code option will not be eliminated, as it is one of the options mandated by Congress.

Consumer Perception and Transparency

The NBFDS has sparked discussions about the impact on consumer choice and transparency. Some argue that the law provides consumers with more information than they would have had otherwise. However, others believe that the narrow scope of the standard has led to confusion and limited consumer understanding. Organizations like the Non-GMO Project have gained traction due to the lack of clarity in the NBFDS, prompting consumers to seek out their logo for products they want to ensure are non-GMO.

Transparency in the food industry is crucial for consumer trust and choice. While the NBFDS has taken steps towards transparency, there is still room for improvement. Many ingredients made with engineered organisms are not required to be labeled as bioengineered, but it is important for companies to be transparent about the origin of these ingredients. Providing information to consumers, regardless of labeling requirements, builds trust and allows for informed choices.

Future Considerations and Updates

The NBFDS is not set in stone and is subject to updates and changes. The list of bioengineered foods may evolve as the USDA reviews and considers updates on an annual basis. This ongoing process creates challenges for companies that need to stay informed about changes in requirements. Additionally, uncertainties regarding the enforcement and timing of the standard further complicate compliance efforts.

The evolving landscape of bioengineered foods and genetic engineering technologies necessitates continuous evaluation of regulations and standards. As the industry progresses, it is crucial to strike a balance between consumer transparency, innovation, and scientific advancements.

Conclusion

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard has been a topic of intense debate since its implementation. Stakeholders in the food industry have expressed a wide range of opinions on the standard, highlighting its limitations and potential benefits. The definition of bioengineered foods and the challenges in enforcement have been major points of contention. The variety of disclosure options and the recent legal challenges surrounding digital disclosures further complicate the landscape.

Moving forward, it is essential for regulators, industry stakeholders, and consumers to engage in ongoing dialogues to address the challenges and opportunities presented by bioengineered foods. Striking a balance between transparency, innovation, and consumer choice is paramount in shaping the future of the food industry.

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