Non-GMO is a buzzword within the industry that doesn’t look to be going anywhere soon, and as such, consumers are looking to the labels of their favorite prepared foods to see if they include the magic phrase. If you believe your commissary makes products that are considered non-GMO, there are currently many ways you can implement that claim on your label.
Keep in mind that there is no official way to certify, beyond all doubt and with complete accountability, that your product is non-GMO. The subject is deeply important to consumers though, and likely to be standardized and regulated at some point in the near future. In the meantime, gaining consumer trust is likely best done through one of two options.
The first is through the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA announced last year that it was developing a standardized label for non-GMO foods, as it has with the terms organic, grass fed and antibiotic-free. The label is not mandatory, and the government still officially maintains that genetically modified food is safe, though it is worth noting that under the conditions of its organic certification, no food made — in any step of the production line — with genetically modified foodstuffs can be certified organic.
"There are numerous non-GMO claims in the marketplace, but it’s unclear to the consumer how valid those are, or what are the standards being used to assert those claims,” Greg Jaffe, the head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's biotechnology project, said to the International Business Times. “It’s better to have USDA provide a common standard and procedure so that consumers who want those labels know what they’re receiving.
"While I understand that there are consumers out there that want to avoid GMOs, there’s not a safety reason to do that," Jaffe added, echoing the majority of the food industry’s opinion on the subject. "Any certification system, whether it’s USDA or private certification systems, should not suggest to consumers in any way that the product with this label on it is somehow safer or better than a similar product without such a label.”
But there are a number of private companies that disagree, and are willing to audit your process with their non-GMO label as well, the biggest of which may be the Non-GMO Project. This organization maintains that the USDA’s label is only an extension of its “Process Verified Seal,” defined on the USDA’s website as a label that “provides companies that supply agricultural products or services the opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products or services.”
The USDA’s standardized label is not what it seems, the Non-GMO Project maintains, because it does not actually account for the line of production verification that a product is entirely made with non-GMO ingredients, but only for a given producer’s internal practices in regard to quality and management. “There is no transparency as to what these practices are,” the organization’s rebuttal of the USDA’s announcement states, “and they are not based on a third party standard.”
According to National Public Radio, the USDA’s Process Verified Program involves submitting documentation of desk and onsite visits, and includes USDA auditors themselves making site visits for verification. The Non-GMO Project maintains that theirs is a more credible and transparent label worthy of consumers’ trust.
While the letter from the USDA last year making the announcement never responded to the Non-GMO Project’s claims, it did state that the non-GMO label was added under the umbrella of the Process Verified Seal at the request of an applicant, and by officially having the USDA weigh in on the subject, was taking a step in the right direction.
So far, there appears to be a long line of businesses waiting to be approved as non-GMO by the USDA, but the Non-GMO Project may be ahead of the curve. Some of the biggest chains and brands in the all-natural niche of food production have lined up to label their offerings with the organization’s stamp of approval, including Whole Foods.
Whole Foods was the first national supermarket chain to declare a goal of including only non-GMO products on its shelves by 2018. According to the company’s website, they’re well on their way to achieving it, with over 25,000 certified organic products and 11,500 products verified by the Non-GMO Project on their shelves.
So how does a producer get the Non-GMO Project verified seal? The organization requires continual testing of all at-risk ingredients in the product, and follows the European Union’s definition of what qualifies as non-GMO, which is any product containing less than 0.9 percent of genetically modified material. Of course, absence of all GMOs is the end goal, and the organization requires that any participant must show continued improvement in that area of their quality management.
“After the test,” its website states, “we require rigorous traceability and segregation practices to be followed in order to ensure ingredient integrity through to the finished product. For low-risk ingredients, we conduct a thorough review of ingredient specification sheets to determine absence of GMO risk. Verification is maintained through an annual audit, along with onsite inspections for high-risk products.”