More consumers than ever say that avoiding GMOs is important to them. But the complex supply chain for vitamins and supplements can make non-GMO verification difficult, even for transparency-focused companies.
That’s why the Coalition for Supplement Sustainability formalized a little over a year ago to work with Non-GMO Project to improve verification standards and processes for supplements. At Natural Products Expo East 2016, representatives from Non-GMO Project, Non-GMO Global Inc., New Chapter and FoodState gave an update on the group’s work. Here, Bethany Davis, FoodState’s director of regulatory affairs and communications officer for the coalition, gave us a preview of what they’ve all been working on.
Can you explain some of the unique challenges for supplements going non-GMO?
Bethany Davis: The Non-GMO Project verification was really built for food, so little pieces of how the standard is put together is much less useful for our industry. Many vitamins and supplements have 20 to 40 ingredients, so there are hundreds of considerations for each finished product.
The challenge has to with the limitations of our supply chain. For instance, with vitamin D3—about 99 percent of D3 that’s manufactured globally comes from lanolin. What we’ve done is say, this is how D3 is made; here’s every single step that goes into turning it from sheep’s wool into vitamin D3. We’ve got documentation for everything that goes into making it, we’ve got animal husbandry documents. But what we can’t quite get to is that most of the sheep are eating grass, and occasionally they might receive supplemental feed. If the farmer decides to buy some supplemental hay, we don’t have documentation on where he got it. That’s why our vitamin D isn’t Non-GMO Project-verified.
If you’re talking about milk, you might be very concerned about what that animal is eating, but when you apply that to the dietary supplement industry, it doesn’t really make sense. The Non-GMO Project realizes that that’s silly, but they have to inform their certifiers how to apply their standard to our industry. We’re working to educate about our supply chain and think about the guidance of how to apply the standard.
And you’re making good progress?
BD: We’re making great progress. A little over a year ago, we formalized this group. We put together a white paper outlining issues that were tricky for us; it helped [Non-GMO Project] understand where the risk for GMO ingredients lies and where it doesn’t lie, as well as some solutions for proving non-GMO status of ingredients. With that education came a lot of clarity. They were really receptive, and we’ve had a really great working relationship over the last year.
This year, we’re creating some new standardized documents for really complicated ingredients. We’re really trying to make things more straightforward for brands and shorten some timelines.
Do you feel like the supply community is evolving in the right direction?
BD: Yes! Five years ago, many international vitamin manufacturers, if you asked them for full information about every raw ingredient and its sourcing and testing results, they would never reveal that to you. That’s their secret sauce. The margins on vitamins are small, so their special process is everything to them.
Now we’re at a point where not only will they provide their ingredients, but when I approached them as part of the Coalition for Supplement Sustainability, with many brands looking for an ingredient with that level of transparency, it’s a lot more compelling.
There’s a huge movement there toward transparency in general, and at the same time, demand for non-GMO products and crops has been growing. This stuff has been cooking for years, but it takes the supply chain a few years to catch up. Many ingredients now have a non-GMO alternative. In some cases it’s more expensive, but in most cases we aren’t necessarily seeing them being more expensive. There are other issues, but in general we’ve seen a lot more availability and more suppliers being transparent.
So what’s the next step for the industry to enable more supplements to become verified non-GMO?
BD: In the very short-term, the Project is going to be rolling out some ideas about how to rethink how they’re handling supplements. At this panel, Megan [Westgate, executive director of Non-GMO Project] will speak to some of this. In early 2017, we’re hoping we’ll have a new version of the standard released under which more supplements can get the certification.