Two weeks ago, Kashi pledged to pursue Non-GMO Project Verification for its largest product lines—GOLEAN cereals and Chewy Granola Bars—in addition to seven already verified cereals. While some consumers complained that the deadline of 2014 wasn't soon enough, the reality is this two-year timeline is actually quite ambitious and realistic, said Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project.
"I don't possibly see how they could do it faster than that. It's a good, aggressive timeline," she said. "We typically expect that it's possible to be verified between three to four months, but it really depends on scale." For example, Kashi submitted its first products to the Project in August 2011. Seven months later in February they were verified.
If consumers could peek behind the curtain, perhaps they'd be more sympathetic to the process. But for now, Kashi is continuing its commitment to organic.
"Increasing the use of organic and non-GMO ingredients is something we've been working on for several years," said Keegan Sheridan, natural food and lifestyle expert at Kashi. "Many of the organic and non-GMO supply chains we need to meet our commitment to organic and Non-GMO Project Verification don’t exist yet at the scale we need, so it’s going to take considerable time and partnership with our suppliers to build them."
Why get Non-GMO Project Verified?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are finally penetrating into the mainstream consciousness. Proof? Find it in the Just Label It! campaign, the Right2Know March as well as state-level issues and media attention this month in O Magazine and Vogue. "Any food company that's paying attention at this point knows [non-GMO is] a core value to any natural and organic business," said Westgate.
And the Non-GMO Project has the sales to back up their hunch. Last October, officially known to the natural products industry as Non-GMO Month, sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products increased an average of 7 percent. It's this month and the proliferation of Non-GMO Project signs at Natural Products Expo East and West that are fueling continued enrollment in the Project each day.
That's a lot of power for a non-profit initiative that was originally started by retailers in 2003. It wasn't until 2005 that the Project got its name, and then 2008 when the verification process launched.
There are now 408 enrolled brands (some already verified, some in the process) in the Non-GMO Project. Those brands encompass 6,200 enrolled products of which 4,250 are verified. And 1,433 retailers have endorsed the project.
But it's not all just a numbers game—it's about a desire to protect the food supply.
The verification, in essence, exists because of a loophole in the National Organic Program's guidelines. To get the USDA Certified Organic label, the NOP does not allow for genetic modification. However, it doesn't prohibit GMOs as a substance, according to the Project, and therefore doesn't require testing.
That's where the Non-GMO Project comes in.
The costs and time involved in Non-GMO Project Verification
This is the question that natural brands, including Kashi, are increasingly asking themselves. And if you're not, perhaps this statistic will sway you: Between 2010 and 2011, there was a 219 percent growth in sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products, according to SPINS.
Newhope360 talked to the Non-GMO Project to help you decide whether to invest in the Project or not. As with any label, it'll cost you, but it's not just established companies paying for the label. There are plenty of startups, too.
"It is an investment," said Westgate of the Non-GMO Project. "That cost can be totally worth it if a company sees the value and is willing to leverage the value. Companies like Squarebar are a great example. They launched leading with Non-GMO Project Verification as being one of their key product assets, and it's definitely paid off for them."
How verification works
The process is fairly straightforward:
Companies go to the Non-GMO Project website and complete a document outlining their products, the ingredients in the products and the facilities that produce the products.
These three factors determine the cost of verification. A no-obligation estimate is delivered free by FoodChain Global Advisors, the Non-GMO Project’s technical consultant and administrator of the program.
After initial enrollee paperwork, the manufacturer will begin the process of uploading the complete details of their products and manufacturing process. A FoodChain evaluator will determine if the paperwork is complete.
An important note: Because the Non-GMO Project does not test on finished products, and instead tests at the most efficient point—initial processing of ingredients—a company must show that it has an ongoing testing system in place.
- Once complete, the manufacturer and FoodChain employee will schedule an on-site inspection. If all facilities comply with the Non-GMO Project Standard, the manufacturer earns the seal and can promote its verified status.
How to get verified in a jiffy? "The biggest thing that slows people down is when they don't prioritize it," said Westgate. "Sometimes you've got the leadership who's really inspired, but the technical person who has to deal with the data upload—they're not as enthusiastic."
Another big factor to consider is the complexity of your product. Simpler products with fewer ingredients and made in one facility will cost less than those with a larger ingredient panel made in multiple facilities. The biggest variable in price is the number of facilities because it's the most labor-intensive to verify, said Westgate.
If the costs are too much at first, another strategy is enrolling a few products at a time. This is fairly common, Westgate said, because "a lot of times companies just want to get familiar with the process before they commit full bore. They want to make sure it's workable, and get to know us and our process."
How long did it take your brand to get Non-GMO Project Verified? Share your experience in the comments and help other brands interested in exploring verification.