Despite fears of widespread contamination of organic foods by genetically modified crops and ingredients, the news so far is encouraging. Labs that test foods for GM material report minimal levels of GMO contamination in organics.
"You can find traces of GMOs in some organic products, but the levels are low compared to conventional food products," said John Fagan, chief executive officer at Genetic ID Inc., a genetic testing, certification and consulting company based in Fairfield, Iowa. Fagan said his company tests many organic corn and soy products and finds GM material at 0.1 percent or lower. In a study analyzing organic soy products, Genetic ID found fewer than 5 percent of samples contained more than 0.1 percent GM material. Most of the remaining samples had no GM content. Meanwhile, Fagan said, contamination of foods with conventional corn or soy ingredients can be as much as 50 percent GM.
Purity Is Possible
Other labs report similar findings. "We're seeing very low levels of contamination [in organics]," said Mike Russell, president of GeneScan USA Inc., based in Belle Chase, La. "They've got a good handle on contamination."
Russell is surprised organic companies have successfully segregated their products to minimize GMO contamination. "I didn't think they could do it, but clearly it can be done," he said.
Alex Kahler, president of Biogenetic Services Inc. in Brookings, S.D., said, "The majority of organic material has been quite clean." Biogenetic Services tests mostly seed and grains.
"In what we have tested, we haven't found much contamination," said Quentin Schultz, president of BioDiagnostics Inc. in River Falls, Wis. When contamination is detected, Schultz said it is more likely to be found in corn than soybeans, but even then, GMO levels are low.
In a media exposé last year, The Wall Street Journal reported varying levels of GMO contamination in 16 natural products labeled "non-GMO." However, only one product was certified organic, and it was found to contain just trace amounts of GM material.
Organic certifiers report similar findings. "Our clients test their products; sometimes they do find low, usually very low, levels of GMO pollution," said Annie Kirschenmann, director of Farm Verified Organic Inc. in Medina, N.D. However, Kirschenmann is not optimistic. "In general, we hear that GMO pollution or the potential thereof is an increasing and extremely frustrating problem for organic producers," she said.
Joe Smillie, vice president of Quality Assurance International, based in San Diego, said awareness of the problem has helped. "Now that people are getting on top of it, it seems to be getting better," he said.
Jim Riddle, an organic consultant and member of the National Organic Standards Board, said that, on average, one truckload of organic soy out of 150 will contain some GMO contamination; the figure is slightly higher for corn. Still, he said, "finished products show very low traces."
Organic manufacturers are also seeing improvements in minimizing GMO contamination. "People are thinking more proactively now to protect their seed and crop," said Arran Stephens, chief executive officer of Nature's Path Foods Inc., based in Delta, British Columbia.
SunRich, an organic ingredients manufacturer and a division of SunRich Food Group in Hope, Minn., now rejects fewer truckloads of grains because of GMOs, said Kate Leavitt, international division representative. "We've seen a significant improvement in the last two years since new identity preservation protocols were put in place," she said. "The organic industry has responded well to the GMO challenge."
Experts say the key to minimizing contamination is identity preservation, a system of food production designed to preserve the integrity of foods from "seed to shelf." "We urge organic product manufacturers to implement systems of identity preservation and to develop relationships with a lab or certification firm," said QAI's Smillie.
"There are ways to ensure contamination is kept to a minimum through IP methods," said Stephens.
These methods include maintaining seed purity, crop segregation, equipment cleaning, GMO testing and documentation of each stage. Many of the practices are already required for organic certification.
Eden Foods Inc., based in Clinton, Mich., implemented a rigorous IP system; the company contracts with farmers to grow non-GM crops and provides extensive GMO testing. Despite cross-pollination problems associated with corn, Eden Foods said it is confident its IP system creates a permanent supply of organic and non-GM corn.
Whether organic manufacturers can continue to keep contamination to a minimum, especially as GM crop acreage increases, remains to be seen. For now, Genetic ID's Fagan said the organic industry is keeping the problem under control. "There may be traces, but organic provides a real haven from genetically engineered products," he said.
Ken Roseboro publishes The Non-GMO Source, a monthly newsletter that provides information and resources to help companies produce and sell non-GM products. He can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 11-12