USDA Unveils Prototypes For GMO Food Labels, And They're ... Confusing : The Salt The labels use the letters BE, for bioengineered, not GMO, which critics say could baffle consumers. One design features a smiling sun that a skeptic calls "essentially propaganda for the industry."

USDA Unveils Prototypes For GMO Food Labels, And They're ... Confusing

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Foods that contain genetically modified ingredients will soon be required to have a special label. NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports that we're now seeing what that label might look like.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: About two years ago, Congress passed a law that GMO foods had to be labeled.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On this vote, the yeas are 306. The nays are 117.

KENNEDY: The U.S. Department of Agriculture was put in charge of figuring out the specifics. It got 112,000 responses when it asked for feedback from consumers, farmers and manufacturers, among others. Earlier this month, it unveiled the contenders. And they all look kind of like the labels you'd see on health food. Their brightly colored with greens and blues and yellows. They feature the letters BE. Below that, some of them have a curved line.

GEORGE KIMBRELL: I mean, they look like a little smiley face.

KENNEDY: George Kimbrell is the legal director for the Center for Food Safety, which pushed for labels. He's not happy with this design. The BE stands for bioengineered - a term critics say is unfamiliar to the public.

KIMBRELL: It's misleading and confusing to consumers to now switch that up and use a totally different term, bioengineered, that has not been the standard commonplace nomenclature for all of this time.

KENNEDY: People are more aware of terms like genetically engineered or GMO, which stands for genetically modified organism. In fact, grocery store shelves already have a lot of products with the label non-GMO. Kimbrell would prefer that foods with genetically modified ingredients be labeled with a circle around a G or GMO. But industry representatives, such as Nathan Fields of the National Corn Growers Association, say the term bioengineered provides a clean slate.

NATHAN FIELDS: There is some connotations around some of the other terms that have been used that do cast the technology in a negative light.

KENNEDY: More than 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. The same is true of crops like soy and sugar beets. Although long-term risks of GMO are hard to pin down, scientists have not found hard evidence that these crops are any less healthy to humans than other crops. Nevertheless, the public wants these labels. Polls show that a majority of Americans want to know whether their food is genetically engineered. Advocates, like George Kimbrell, say the people want to have the tools to make an informed choice about what they buy, and labels should make that possible.

KIMBRELL: It's the tip of the spear as to the future of our food and the debate, as a society, that we're having about it and how we produce it.

KENNEDY: The USDA's proposal, which runs over 100 pages, leaves a lot up in the air. Authorities haven't decided whether labels should go on foods made with highly refined products, like canola oil or cornstarch. And companies may be able to simply use a QR code, a kind of barcode that a phone can scan, to disclose facts about the product. So despite the debate over the smiley BE labels, a lot of companies might just choose not to use them. The public has until July 3 to submit comments on the USDA's proposal. Merrit Kennedy, NPR News, Washington.

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