The creation of a federal organic labeling program for foods was initiated to address the challenges presented by the patchwork of local organic certification systems that preceded it. The U.S. market for organic products was growing in the 1980s. This sparked the creation of a number of state agencies and private-sector organizations to verify that organic products met the criteria to be considered organic.
Most of these organic certifying organizations were regional in operation, and there was little recognition of their certifications outside of their respective regions. This became a bigger problem as organic foods were shipped to other markets to meet growing demand. Because there were no federal and few state regulations defining the term “organic,” multiple standards were being applied to the industry. This also contributed to consumers questioning the credibility of organic products. These issues prompted the industry to recognize the importance of a federal solution to support continued growth of the organic segment of the food industry, leading the U.S. Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990.
Importantly, OFPA created a program in which participation by food marketers is voluntary. If this legislation had instead proposed mandatory labeling of nonorganic foods—for example, by requiring label disclosure of the pesticides used on each crop in all foods—it almost certainly would not have been adopted by Congress.
Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP)—the voluntary federal labeling system established by OFPA—has created a robust market for meats, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and processed food products that have been grown and processed in accordance with defined organic agricultural production practices. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic products in the U.S. grew 9.5 percent in 2011 compared to 4.7 percent growth for conventionally produced products.
Under NOP, USDA accredits a network of certification agencies to standardize the inspection and monitoring of organic practices by certifiers. NOP facilities must document that their agricultural production and handling methods are in compliance with NOP requirements through inspection and ongoing monitoring by a recognized certifier. NOP defines different levels of organic content, which provides flexibility for the labeling of products ranging from raw agricultural commodities to more processed, multi-ingredient foods. The specific labeling and wording of organic claims is defined by NOP, providing important consistency for consumers seeking these products in the marketplace.
There are several similarities between the organic marketplace of the 1980s and today’s market for products that do not contain genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients. There is growing demand for non-GMO products, but there is no federal regulation defining non-GMO. Consumers wanting to purchase non-GMO products buy certified organic products because the absence of GMO ingredients is a requirement of NOP standards.
In the absence of a federal policy, many states are considering laws that would require the labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients. California voters rejected such a law last November, but Connecticut and Maine passed GMO labeling laws this year. Both of these states’ laws contain trigger clauses that delay implementation until a minimum number of neighboring states adopt similar statutes. An additional 24 states are currently considering mandatory labeling laws.
At the federal level, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. Like many of the proposed state laws, this legislation would mandate labeling of all GMO foods and ingredients, and would rely almost entirely on guarantees provided by ingredient suppliers. But based on Congressional voting records on recent related bills, this legislation is unlikely to pass in the current Congress.
The growing marketplace for non-GMO products, the increasing possibility of an uncoordinated patchwork of state regulations, and the absence of a viable federal solution prompted the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) to develop and advocate for a federal policy that enables companies to voluntarily disclose the absence of GMO ingredients in foods and supplements.
NOP provides a good template for the creation of a federal program to verify and label the absence of GMOs in foods and other products. This would create an option for companies whose products are processed without GMO inputs, but that do not meet the additional requirements for full organic production. Companies whose products are labeled as organic may be interested in this additional label as a means of highlighting the absence of GMO inputs in their products, as some consumers may be unaware that organic production requirements include the absence of GMOs.
Federal administration of a labeling program for GMO absence would also provide an opportunity for recognition and harmonization with similar international labeling programs for GMO absence, as is currently done by NOP for organic commodities and products.
In AHPA’s view, it is possible that a voluntary federal labeling program for GMO absence will provide more consistent information to consumers while minimizing the expense and potential confusion of mandatory labeling laws for GMO presence at either the state or federal level.
For more information about AHPA’s policy to advocate for a federal regulation for voluntary disclosure of absence of GMO ingredients in food and dietary supplements and its current guidance policy, contact AHPA President Michael McGuffin.