A group of 17 executives and representatives from leading natural products companies has been working since last August to develop rejection-level thresholds and standards for labeling products as "not containing genetically engineered ingredients."
The group is led by Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of governmental and public affairs at Whole Foods Market, and includes executives from The Hain Celestial Group, Nature's Path Foods, Newman's Own Organics, NOW Foods, Ojai Organics, Spectrum Organic Products, United Natural Foods, White Wave and Wild Oats Markets. The group also includes representatives from Genetic ID, FoodWise Inc., New Hope Natural Media and The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods. For a complete listing of all participants, see below.
Consistent Standard Needed
The working group assembled to discuss the need for standards in August 2001, following The Wall Street Journal's April exposé, which revealed that several products labeled "non-GMO" or "GMO-free" actually contained GM ingredients.
Following the exposé, Wittenberg contacted people in the industry and found that manufacturers have different criteria for making non-GMO claims. "We needed to get people together to develop a consistent standard that industry could use for making non-GMO claims on products," Wittenberg said.
"Having guidelines to substantiate non-GMO claims is important," said Lily Thompson, brand message manager, White Wave.
John Fagan, CEO at GMO testing lab Genetic ID, said a standard will help natural product companies give their customers accurate information about the GMO status of their products. "A standard will remove confusion about what non-GMO means and create a consistency that will be helpful to everybody," Fagan said.
Variability Among Labs
One of the challenges to creating a standard is that GMO testing labs vary in their ability to accurately detect GM material in foods. This is because labs use different testing methods and different procedures to prepare samples and report results.
The working group decided first to determine at which levels laboratories could accurately detect GMO contamination. The group asked the Champaign, Ill.-based American Oil Chemists Society to organize a "ring trial" to evaluate laboratories' ability to detect GM material at rejection levels of 1 percent, 0.5 percent and 0.1 percent. AOCS was chosen because of its extensive experience in setting standards and harmonizing laboratory methods. Based on the ring trial results, AOCS will recommend an acceptable threshold for adventitious GMO contamination.
Fagan believes that 0.1 percent is an achievable threshold; British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation recommended this standard for labeling food products as non-GMO in the UK. "If they can achieve 0.1 percent, it should be possible for others also," Fagan said.
The working group raised $10,000 to fund the ring trial. AOCS is recruiting laboratories to participate and expects to complete the trial later this spring. The group will then present its findings to the natural products industry. "We want to show that we are responsible and take labeling seriously," Wittenberg said.
Need For Standards Debated
Wittenberg emphasized that the initiative has been private, involving a small group of industry members. "We are representing ourselves and not the entire industry," she said.
Some in the organics industry would argue the need for a standard. "We don't believe there should be a standard," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. "The burden should not be on us; it should be on polluters of organics."
DiMatteo also believes creating a standard could change organic production from a process claim to an end-product claim, involving more cost to organic producers and manufacturers. "To be required to test in addition to being certified is a burden," she said.
Wittenberg agreed that organic regulations do not allow the use of GM ingredients, but said, "We are faced with genetic drift, and we need a solution so when consumers see a label they know exactly what they're getting."
Lack Of Government Help
Industry members have taken the initiative to establish a standard because the U.S. government has not yet indicated any intention to do so. In January 2001, the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft guidance document to assist companies wanting to label products as non-GMO, but there is no mention of a standard and the document has not yet been finalized. "This is a vitally important project because no one in the government will come to the plate to do it," said George Kalogridis, president, Ojai Organics.
Wittenberg believes that the working group's efforts could have a positive impact on the FDA's finalized draft guidance document. "If we can offer good research information as a proposal to the FDA, it shows our good intent on being proactive and responsible," she said.
Ken Roseboro publishes The Non-GMO Source and can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 13