A common sight at recent Natural Products Expo trade shows are signs promoting products as "non-GMO," "GE-free" or "contains no GMOs." As the debate over genetically modified food grows in North America, natural products manufacturers want to assure retailers—and in turn their customers—that their products don't contain GM ingredients.
Manufacturers say they are responding to consumer demand. "We are absolutely convinced there is a market segment that wants this information," says Steven Demos, president, White Wave Inc., which labels its soy milk as "Certified GMO Free." "Why would we not respond?"
Recent surveys show consumers' preference for non-GMO. The Natural Marketing Institute, based in Harleyville, Pa., found that 20 percent of U.S. consumers said it was extremely important for stores to offer non-GMO products. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organization in Washington, D.C., focusing on nutrition and food safety, found that 31 percent of consumers surveyed said that foods labeled "does not contain genetically engineered ingredients" were better than unlabeled foods.
However, manufacturers face risks of brand damage and consumer fraud if products labeled non-GMO are tested and found to contain GMOs. According to Demos, the problem is a lack of industry standards for what constitutes "non-GMO." "The threat of liability exists because no one has set definitive boundaries on what words can be used on a label," Demos says.
The lack of standards has discouraged some manufacturers from labeling their products as non-GMO. "We wouldn't label until there is a standard," says Linda Gerwig, marketing manager for Barbara's Bakery in Petaluma, Calif.
FDA Gets 50,000 Comments
Last January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a draft guidance document to assist manufacturers that want to label their products as being made without GMOs. The document recommends that companies avoid using acronyms such as "GM" or "GMO" and instead use phrases such as, "We do not use ingredients that were produced using biotechnology," or "This oil is made from soybeans that weren't genetically engineered."
Among other recommendations, the FDA discourages nonbiotech labels on products containing ingredients that are not commonly genetically engineered. For example, oatmeal could not be labeled non-GMO because oats are not genetically engineered.
The FDA received more than 50,000 public comments on the draft guidance document, according to an agency spokesman. The agency will review the comments and may or may not modify the draft guidance document, based on the comments. No final action on the document is expected this year.
Natural products manufacturers are unhappy with the document. Michael Potter, president of Eden Foods, and Arran Stephens, president of Nature's Path Foods, both say the burden of labeling—with its added costs of identity preservation and GMO testing—is wrongly placed on natural products manufacturers when it should be placed on biotechnology companies. "Not only is the FDA failing to mandate labeling of genetically engineered foods, but now they want to gag manufacturers of products that don't contain GMOs," Potter says.
Stephens describes the FDA's proposals as "incomprehensible." "We go to great lengths to keep GMOs out of our products and should have the democratic right to label our products as such," Stephens says. "Mandatory labeling of GM foods is needed."
Canadian retail giant Loblaws recently pressured Nature's Path to remove non-GMO labels from its products, citing a lack of industry standards for non-GMO. At the risk of losing several million dollars in business and layoffs, Stephens reluctantly complied.
Craig Winters, director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, says the FDA should use similar criteria to that required of alcohol-free and nonalcoholic beer. Beer labeled "alcohol-free" must be 100 percent free of alcohol, while "non-alcoholic" beer allows traces of alcohol up to 5 percent. Winters says the term "non-GMO" should be permitted along with a statement indicating the threshold of GM content, for example, "Tested to a level of 1 percent."
Suggestion, Not A Rule Of Law
The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently asked the FDA to take action against seven food manufacturers whose product labels they said deceive consumers with false or misleading non-GMO claims. As an example, CSPI said that Spectrum Naturals' canola oil featured the commonly used red circle with a line through "GMO," which implied superiority.
In a letter to CSPI, Neil Blomquist, Spectrum's president, defended use of the symbol and said his company takes the FDA's guidelines seriously but emphasized that "our constituents, who are our core customers and trade partners in the natural foods industry, must take precedence over the FDA recommendations."
Indeed, the the FDA official emphasizes that the guidance document is just that and not a law. "We're not mandating that people change; this is a suggestion," he says. "There is no rule of law saying companies have to adhere to this, but if some action is brought, companies will know what the FDA's thinking is." He says the FDA's main concern is that foods are healthy and safe.
In the absence of standards for non-GMO, "manufacturers would be wise to back up their non-GMO claim," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield, Mass. OTA discourages companies from using "GM-Free" labels because such a claim is virtually impossible to prove because of adventitious GMO contamination and limits in GMO test methods. Instead, OTA recommends a statement such as "grown and produced without the use of GMOs."
John Fagan, chief executive officer at Genetic ID, a GMO testing lab in Fairfield, Iowa, says manufacturers must back their non-GMO claims with testing and/or independent third-party verification. "The safety of a non-GMO claim is directly proportional to the care manufacturers take to establish that their product is non-GMO," Fagan says. "Adequate verification is essential."
Verified non-GMO claims, according to Fagan, "can contribute to the attractiveness of products in the marketplace." Fagan recommends that the natural foods industry work cooperatively to create standards for non-GMO. "This is very important because it gives manufacturers a clear-cut target [at] which they can [aim] quality assurance systems," he says.
Until clear guidelines for non-GMO labeling are established, manufacturers may have to rely on their own creative solutions, as Nature's Path did when it was forced to remove non-GMO labels from its cereal boxes. "We put them inside the box," Stephens says.
Ken Roseboro publishes The Non-GMO Source, a monthly newsletter that provides information and resources to help companies produce and sell non-GMO products. He can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 11/p. 10, 18