GMO, GE, Bioengineered...What Do All These Food Labels Mean?

Jul 6, 2016

Vermont’s GMO labeling law aims to provide consumers with more information, and yet it's just one of a growing number of food labels popping up on grocery shelves.

When it comes specifically to biotechnology and food, there are a lot of terms being thrown around — and sometimes even the regulators disagree on what's the best term to use.

Let's take a look at some basic terms: GMO, GE, bioengineered and natural.

GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism

Despite being the namesake of Vermont’s labeling law, the term GMO doesn't mean much from a scientific perspective. Humans have been genetically modifying plants since long before modern agriculture was born some 11,000 years ago. UVM’s plant biologist Jeanne Harris puts it this way: “Part of the problem is that ‘GMO’ is not a scientific term … we’ve been modifying plants since way pre-history." 

However, here’s where it gets confusing: The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that will test and verify that food manufacturers' products contain less than 0.9 percent of genetically engineered ingredients.

That’s right. The label says “Non-GMO,” but the definition refers to genetic engineering. The organization’s website defines GMOs as “organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE.” GE is considered a more precise term, by the FDA and others.

TAKEAWAY: When people say GMO, they really mean GE.

Genetically engineered, or GE

Vermont’s law basically defines genetic engineering as using modern technology to make genetic changes to a plant’s DNA.

The labeling law bases its definition in part on the federal organic standard, and includes a long list of specific genetic engineering techniques that are considered GE, including the direct injection of foreign genes into a plant’s cells.

However, a technique called mutagenesis, which uses chemicals or radiation to randomly change a plant’s DNA, is not considered GE — even though this technique could in theory produce a plant that is genetically the same as a plant created through genetic engineering. 

The FDA does not consider genetically engineered foods to be materially different from their traditional counterparts, and therefore says they don’t require labeling.

TAKEAWAY: While the term genetically engineered is fairly well-defined, some scientists point out there are multiple ways of creating plants that have GE traits — some methods are considered GE and some are not.

Credit Emily Alfin Johnson & Kathleen Masterson / VPR

Bioengineered

This isn't a food label term, for now. However, the U.S. Senate Agriculture committee’s GMO labeling bill does not use the term GE for its label and instead the bill defines “bioengineered food.” (Some critics of the bill say its authors did this because of the stigma associated with GE.)

The bill’s definition of “bioengineered food” leaves a lot open to interpretation. That’s in large part because the bill would limit the label to foods where the genetic modification "could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” Many genes that are added to crop using GE techniques are indeed found in nature, such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that's used to make crops pest-resistant. 

The FDA wrote in its comments on the bill that it “will likely mean that many foods from genetically engineered sources will not be subject to this bill.”  

In addition, the bill says the “bioengineered” label only applies to foods that contain genetic materials. 

“That would mean that foods from GE sources that you can’t detect [the genetic materials]— that’s all your oils, sugars, fructose corn syrup, all that stuff — they would be exempted from the bill,” says Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety. 

TAKEAWAY: The term "bioengineered food" hasn’t passed into law, but the FDA says that many GE foods would not meet the bill's definition of bioengineered.

Natural

This is a contentious one. The label “natural” is only defined for meat products — and it has nothing to do with how the animal was raised or what it ate. The label is simply about whether the meat has had other ingredients added to it after the animal was killed. The USDA defines natural as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”

But when it comes to cereal, salad dressing and other processed foods carrying the “natural” or "100 percent natural" label, it's not defined by the FDA. The agency allows the use of the terms on foods that don't contain color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Some consumer groups have challenged the FDA on this, and it's considering regulating the term.

More complicated: Vermont’s labeling law mandates that foods containing GE ingredients cannot have the word “natural” on their label. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association has sued Vermont over its labeling law, in part arguing that “the First Amendment likewise bars the law’s restrictions on 'natural' labeling.”

TAKEAWAY: The label “natural” doesn’t mean anything about how a food crop was grown or a meat animal was raised.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative. Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.