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GMO, Bioengineered Labeling, and Non-GMO Food



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Authored by Timothy Pierce, Graduate Student, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech; and John Bovay, Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech


The acronym GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. Terms with similar meanings include: Genetically Engineered (GE), Genetically Modified (GM), Transgenic, Biotech, Bioengineered, or Products Made with Modern Biotechnology.

This factsheet, which accompanies a webinar on “Non-GMO, GMO, and bioengineered food labeling”, provides an overview of the definitions of these labels in the United States. The webinar and factsheet are part of the Virginia Sustainable Farms and Agribusiness Education Initiative offered by Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and Virginia Cooperative Extension. More information about the program is available at

More information about GMOs can be found at websites created by Purdue University (2016) and the University of Connecticut (2017), and other references listed at the end of this factsheet.

What is genetic modification and what is it for?

Genetic modification is the process of changing an organism’s genes using modern biology and technology. It is used to change an organism’s rDNA to better suit the needs of farmers and consumers (Van Eenennaam et al., 2014). Genetic modification allows farmers to plant crops with better resistance to insects, viruses, and pesticides. For example, genetic modification has been used to create apples that don’t brown (Paul, 2017), and to develop potatoes that have smaller amounts of acrylamide—a chemical in potatoes that may be harmful to humans (Charles, 2015). The process has been used to make seeds that produce more food on less land and require less water and fewer nutrients. Genetic modification can lower the cost of farming, reduce the amount of unsold food, and increase farm profits.

Although there is no scientific evidence that genetically engineered food is harmful to humans (National Academies, 2016), there is still public concern. In fact, public skepticism is the main drawback. In addition, certain types of genetic engineering may increase the speed that pests and weeds build up resistance to pesticides and herbicides (Fernandez-Cornejo et al., 2014). Finally, genetic modification may lead to gene flow, which is “a change in the genes of a particular group of plants due to the movement of pollen, seeds, or live plants carrying modified DNA sequences” (Auer, 2017).

What is the difference between mandatory and voluntary GMO labeling?

There are two main types of labels related to GMOs. Many countries’ governments require labeling of GMO foods as containing GMOs. Some producers of non-GMO foods voluntarily label their food as non-GMO.

Does the United States have laws about mandatory labeling?

In July 2016, Congress passed a law creating the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS). The law provides a national definition of bioengineered products, creates a labeling requirement, gives producers options for how to label foods, and develops a procedure for enforcement.

Definition and exemptions

Under the NBFDS, “bioengineered food” means a food “(A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and (B) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

If manufacturers intentionally use bioengineered ingredients in their food products, the food is required to be labeled. If the use of bioengineered ingredients is “inadvertent or technically unavoidable” then the food requires a label if more than 5% of the ingredient (by weight) is a “bioengineered substance”. There are exemptions for small manufacturers.

What kinds of food require labeling?

NBFDS requires labeling of (a) foods for which the predominant ingredient is regulated by FDA and (b) foods for which the predominant ingredient is broth, stock, water, or a similar solution and the second-most predominant ingredient is regulated by FDA.

What’s regulated by FDA? Everything except meat, poultry, and egg products (and foods with large meat, poultry, or egg content). Therefore, meat, poultry, and egg products may be exempt from the bioengineered label requirement. Other exemptions include foods sold in restaurants and most alcoholic beverages. Organic certified food is not allowed be produced with bioengineering, so it is also exempt.

Labeling Requirement

Manufacturers have three main options for labeling bioengineered foods and foods containing bioengineered ingredients. (1) Product packaging may include the text “bioengineered food” or “contains a bioengineered food ingredient”. (2) The circular symbols at right may be used. (3) A QR code like the one at the lower-right corner of the page, or similar technology, may be used if accompanied with a statement like “Scan here for more food information”. The QR code would link to a website or display a text statement. QR codes (or similar technology) must be accompanied with a phone number that would allow callers to access information. Lastly, small food manufacturers (with less than $10 million in annual receipts) may comply by providing phone numbers (with language indicating that the phone number provides access to additional information) or website addresses instead of providing any of the three options outlined above.

We note that different labeling causes customers to behave differently. For example, some shoppers may avoid products labeled “Contains GMOs” but be indifferent about the phrase “Bioengineered Food”. Some shoppers may avoid food explicitly labeled “bioengineered” but be indifferent about QR codes that direct them to websites indicating the same information.

Enforcement procedure

USDA may not recall food for failure to comply with NBFDS and may not issue fines. Compliance is enforced only through audits, examinations, hearings, and public disclosure of the results of audits, examinations, and similar activities.

Left: Circular symbol containing the word "bioengineered" above and below a stylized image of a crop, a field, and the sun.; Right: Circular symbol containing the words "derived from bioengineering" above and below a stylized image of a crop, a field, and the sun.
To the left: a QR code.  To the right: the words "Scan here for more food information"

What do I need to do to be NBFDS compliant?

“Very small” manufacturers (those with less than $2.5 million in annual sales) are exempt from NBFDS labeling requirements. Farms whose buyers require non-GMO products should keep detailed records, keep GMO and non-GMO inputs separate (and keep affidavits), and consider looking into a verification service to confirm that products do not contain genetically engineered material. Verification is not necessary unless products are marketed as “organic”.

Do other countries have mandatory GMO labeling?

At least sixty-five countries around the world have some labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods (Bovay and Alston, 2016). Many of those sixty-five countries with labeling requirements are in the European Union where labels have been required for genetically engineered products since 1997 (Bovay and Alston, 2018; Qaim, 2016). In the European Union, food products with ingredients with more than 0.9% GMO contents require labeling (European Parliament, 2003). In Japan, the tolerance is higher, with food products with more than 5% requiring a label (Umeda, 2014).

What do non-GMO labels indicate?

Non-GMO labels are voluntarily added to products by their manufacturers (Kuchler et al., 2017). There is no unified national definition of non-GMO, and there are many independent certifiers. The Non- GMO Project is probably the best-known non-GMO label but it is not the only one, and certification is not required for producers who want to make “non- GMO” claims. Just keep in mind that independent standards for “non-GMO” differ from the federal standards for “bioengineered”. There may be some products that meet neither standard, and some products that meet both.

For those selling poultry, meat, or egg products, NBFDS does not apply. But if making a non-GMO claim, additional clarification must be provided. For example, when claiming “Contains no GMO ingredients,” an asterisk must reference the certification, such as, “Certified by NSF International.” See USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (2019) for additional details.


We thank Elizabeth Chang, Enology Extension Specialist, Department of Food Science & Technology, Virginia Tech, for her very helpful comments.

This material is based upon work supported by USDA/NIFA under Award Number 2018-70027- 28585.

The logo for the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The logo for the Southern Extension Risk Management Education Center


114th U.S. Congress. 2016. Public Law 114–216.

Auer, C., 2017. Gene Flow and Coexistence. University of Connecticut Science of GMOs website.

Bovay, J., Alston, J.M., 2016. GM labeling regulation by plebiscite: Analysis of voting on proposition 37 in California. Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 41, 161–188.

Bovay, J., and J.M. Alston. 2018. “GMO food labels in the United States: Economic implications of the new law.” Food Policy 78: 14–25.

Charles, D., 2015. GMO potatoes have arrived. But will anyone buy them? NPR.

European Parliament, 2003. Regulation EC No 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed.

Fernandez-Cornejo, J., S. Wechsler, M. Livingston, and L. Mitchell, 2014. Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States. USDA–Economic Research Service, Washington, DC, February.

Kuchler, F., Greene, C., Bowman, M., Marshall, K., Bovay, J., Lynch, L., 2017. Beyond nutrition and organic labels—30 years of experience with intervening in food labels. Economic Research Report. USDA–Economic Research Service, Washington, DC, October.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. National Academies Press, 2016.

Paul, Dalila-Johari. GMO apples that never brown could hit stores soon. CNN.

Purdue University, College of Agriculture, 2016. The Science of GMOs.

Qaim, M., 2016. Genetically Modified Crops and Agricultural Development. Palgrave-Macmillan, New York.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. 2018. National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. Final Rule. December 21, 2018. Federal Register.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service. 2019. Labeling Guideline on Statements That Bioengineered or Genetically-Modified Ingredients or Animal Feed Were Not Used in Meat, Poultry, or Egg Products. 7972e6-cd56-4f0a-a5d5-d066ac12651b/labeling-guideline-bioengineered.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.

Umeda, S., 2014. Restrictions on Genetically Modified Organisms. Law Library of Congress, Japan. (Accessed September 23, 2017).

University of Connecticut, College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, 2017. Science of GMOs.

Van Eenennaam, A.L., Chassy, B.M., Kalaitzandonakes, N., Redick, T.P., 2014. The potential impacts of mandatory labeling for genetically engineered food in the United States. CAST Issue Paper No. 54. Ames, Iowa: Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, April.

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Publication Date

March 1, 2021