CFSA needs your help! T
ell the USDA that “GMO disclosures” on food labels must be transparent, easy to understand, and accessible to all consumers.

GMO Labeling Issue Outline:


On May 3, 2018, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) published its proposed rules for implementing the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS or “GMO labeling law”), a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in July 2016.

The GMO labeling law, once implemented, will require many (but not all) food products to carry a disclosure if the products contain ingredients which meet the statutory definition of “bioengineered food.”

However, there are some serious problems with the GMO labeling rules that USDA has proposed. Unless changes are made, the resulting GMO label disclosures will not be a reliable source of information for consumers. Worse—they seem likely to cause confusion in the marketplace, which harms consumers and industry alike. 



The USDA wants to hear what you think about its proposed GMO labeling rules. Regardless of how you feel about genetically engineered crops, if you think that consumers have a right to know whether biotechnology was used to produce their food, then the USDA needs to hear from you!

The commenting period has closed (deadline to submit comments was July 3, 2018).



If you’re already familiar with the GMO labeling law and USDA’s proposed rule, and you’re ready, then submit your comments directly. 

It’s worth noting that there are two options for submitting comments:

  • Option 1 – type them in directly at this page on (Feel free to use our What Do I Say? section as a resource.)   
  • Option 2 – upload a saved document that contains comments you’ve written. To make this option easier, CFSA created a template that you can download and use. You’ll want to:
    • Download the template (.DOCX).
    • Customize the template with your information and/or own comments.
    • Save your version of the template to your computer.
    • Upload your comments at this page on If you’re unsure you’re at the right page, please see the graphic below.   



If you’re struggling to know what to say in your comments, then know that we’re here to help! Below we’ve crafted some suggested talking points. If you aren’t sure how these relate to the GMO labeling law or USDA’s proposed rules, you can read a quick overview of both under the More Info Section, below.  

The USDA pays special attention to unique comments, so please consider using your own words if possible. However, commenting is the most important part, so please feel free to submit these talking points as is. 

If you’re using our template, please take note that these comments are already included in that document. 

Suggested talking points:

  • Use terms consumers understand! The USDA should require disclosure to be made using the more familiar terms “GMO” or “genetic engineering” instead of the proposed term “bioengineering,” which is not familiar to consumers. The term “bioengineering” should be rejected by the USDA.

  • Regardless of the technology, it should be labeled! Consumers want to know if their food contains products from all GMO foods, whether developed with old or new technology! Food produced using newer gene-editing techniques like CRISPR should be required to be labeled under the NBFDS.

  • Deciding what to eat = what’s in food + how it was grown! Highly refined food products made from genetically engineered crops, such as sugars and oils, should be labeled as GMO/GE even if there is no detectable genetic material left in the product after manufacturing.

  • More disclosure is better than less! The USDA should use “.9% of the weight of a single ingredient” as the threshold amount of inadvertent GMO/GE content that triggers a disclosure requirement. (This is the lowest threshold that the USDA is considering.)

  • Everyone deserves to know how their food is grown, not just people with smartphones! The USDA should reject both the QR-code and text message disclosure options because consumers who lack tech expertise, smartphones, wi-fi access, or the money to pay for frequent text messaging will not be able to access information about their food using these options.

  • Don’t treat GMO labels as a chance to market them as happy, sunny, or bucolic! The USDA should reject the proposed symbols for disclosing GMO/GE food products because they are not neutral (for example, some proposed symbols are flowers with smiley faces).

    When Congress passed the GMO labeling law, it included a provision that prohibits disclosures (whether by text or symbol) from indicating that GMO food is safer or less safe than non-GMO food. The USDA’s proposed symbols don’t comply with this requirement.



If you’re eager for further information, here are some resources we recommend checking out around the issue:




What is NBFDS “GMO Labeling” Law?

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in July of 2016.

It was not the first attempt by members of Congress to establish some sort of labeling scheme for GMO/GE foods. Previous attempts had occurred in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, with multiple bills being introduced in the preceding months. At the same time, individual states were passing their own GMO/GE labeling laws, leading some in the food industry (and their champions in Congress) to worry that without federal intervention, manufacturers would be forced to comply with different labeling requirements in different states.

By passing the NBFDS, Congress and President Obama prevented the state-level GMO labeling laws from going into effect.

To be sure, this was not well received by the proponents of those state-level laws. But beyond any concerns about the relative merits of state vs. federal regulation, the substantive provisions of the NBFDS also gave advocates for consumers and transparent food labeling a number of reasons to be concerned.

The NBFDS law was short on details and left significant questions unanswered. These questions would need to be resolved later, by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

For example:

  • The NBFDS didn’t clearly indicate whether food developed with newer gene-editing gene-editing technologies need to be labeled. By contrast, it was clear that older “transgenic” crops like Bt corn and glyphosate-resistant soybeans would be subject to labeling requirements under the law.
  • The NBFDS left open the possibility that highly refined ingredients such as processed oils or sugars would not need to be labeled, even if they were derived from genetically engineered crops. This ambiguity arises from the definition of “bioengineered foods” in the law, which describes foods that “contain [altered] genetic material.” Many highly-refined sugars and oils no longer contain any genetic material after the manufacturing process is complete.    
  • The NBFDS also provided AMS with some discretion in deciding how the disclosure of GMO/GE ingredients could be made. Congress listed multiple alternatives, including a text statement, a symbol, and a digital QR-code that could be scanned by a customer’s smartphone. Congress directed AMS to conduct a study of the feasibility of using the QR-code option, which AMS completed in 2017. Among other things, the study showed that accessing QR-codes via smartphone was difficult, if not impossible, for many consumers who live in rural areas, have limited financial means, or are elderly. Congress also directed AMS to propose alternatives if the study showed that using QR codes would be problematic.
  • The NBFDS gave AMS authority to establish a threshold percentage of GMO/GE material that is inadvertently present in food products, below which products would not need to be labeled. The European Union—which already requires GMO products to be labeled—and the Non-GMO Project both use thresholds of .9% of a single ingredient, by weight.
  • Last, the NBFDS did not clearly indicate which specific word or phrase would be used in disclosures to refer to food that has been genetically altered through the use of biotechnology.  Congress used the term “bioengineering” in the law, but it gave AMS the discretion to use other similar terms instead, such as “GMO” and/or “genetically engineered.”

While Congress decided to give AMS the job of clarifying these uncertainties, through regulations, some important aspects of the NBFDS law were clearly spelled out

For example:

  • Foods containing meat, poultry, or eggs will be subject to labeling only if the predominant ingredient, by weight, is a genetically engineered crop (or potentially a fish product, if such products become commercially available). In other words, if a can of soup contains GMO corn, that soup will not need to be labeled “bioengineered” if the first ingredient (other than water or stock) is beef, chicken, or egg.   
  • Animal products will not be labeled as “bioengineered” or an equivalent term solely by virtue of the virtue of animals in question consumed GMO/GE feed.   
  • USDA-AMS will have no authority to recall falsely labeled food and cannot impose civil fines on manufacturers who knowingly violate the law. AMS’s enforcement authority is limited to conducting audits and investigations after receiving complaints and publishing the results of these investigations on the AMS website.


On May 3, 2018, almost two years after Congress passed the NBFDS, AMS published its proposed rule for implementing the law. In some cases, the proposed rule clearly states AMS’s position with respect to some of the above-mentioned areas of uncertainty.

In other cases, AMS has proposed multiple possible alternatives about which they are now seeking comments from the public. What follows is an overview of the major provisions of the proposed rule.

  • AMS has proposed to retain (without alteration or narrowing) the definition of “bioengineered food” that was provided by Congress in the NBFDS, which is “a food that:
    • (1) contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques; AND
    • (2) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” Foods which meet this definition are those which will need to be labeled.
  • AMS has proposed that only the word “bioengineering” be used in the mandatory disclosure of GMO/GE products, rather than the more familiar terms “GMO” or “genetic engineering/GE.”
  • AMS has proposed three alternate de minimis thresholds of GMO/GE material, below which a product would be exempt from labeling:
    • (1) .9% of a single ingredient, by weight, if unintentionally present;
    • (2) 5% of a single ingredient, by weight, if unintentionally present; and
    • (3) 5% of the weight of the entire product in final form, even if the GMO/GE ingredients are intentionally present.
      AMS will select one of these proposed thresholds for the final rule.
  • AMS has also proposed to exempt: USDA Organic products; food served in restaurants or retail establishments; and food produced by “very small manufacturers,” defined as those with less than $2.5 million in annual receipts. According to the AMS, the “very small manufacturer” exemption would exclude 4% of all products, but 75% of all firms.
  • Unless exempt, products which must be disclosed are those which contain ingredients made from GMO/GE crops that are published on one of two lists maintained by AMS. On the “highly adopted list,” defined as those crops with GE-variety adoption rates of 85% or higher in the United States, the AMS has proposed to list canola, field corn, cotton, soybeans, and sugar beets. On the non-highly adopted list, AMS has proposed to list non-browning apples, sweet corn, papaya, potato, and summer squash. The lists will be updated at least annually.
  • Disclosure of ingredients on the highly adopted list must indicate that the product is or contains “bioengineered” food. Disclosure of ingredients on the non-highly adopted list can be accomplished by stating that the product “may” contain bioengineered food.
  • Manufacturers and/or retailers responsible for making the GMO disclosure must do so if they package and/or sell a product which contains an ingredient that falls on one of these lists, unless the manufacturer or the product falls under an exemption, OR unless the manufacturer can prove, with appropriate documentation, that the ingredients used were not GMO/GE varieties.
  • AMS has proposed to allow disclosure to be made through any of several different options:
    • (1) a simple text statement printed on a product’s label;
    • (2) a symbol printed on a product’s label;
    • (3) information made available on a website and obtained by scanning a QR code printed on a product’s label; or
    • (4) information received after sending a text message to a phone number that is printed on the product label. For both the QR code and the text message, the accompanying statement on the label would read “Scan/text for more food information.” The symbols AMS has proposed for making the disclosure look like this:
  • In accordance with the NBFDS—which provided AMS with limited means for enforcing the law—AMS has proposed a process for receiving and investigating complaints of violations. The basic process is as follows:
    • (1) AMS receives a complaint from industry, a consumer, or government stating that a certain product has been mislabeled;
    • (2) AMS conducts an investigation and audit of the operation in question;
    • (3) AMS makes findings and conducts a hearing (if requested), during which an investigated party may respond to the findings;
    • (4) following a hearing, the AMS may revise its findings;
    • (5) AMS publishes the results of the investigation and hearing on its website.