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One supplement company's journey to earning a GMO-free label

It’s counter-intuitive, but food-based supplements carry a higher risk of containing GMO ingredients because they are made from food. Supplements comprised of synthetic ingredients, though arguably nutritionally inferior, carry a lower risk of containing GM ingredients. So, a synthetic ingredient will get approved for use with much less investigation than a nutrient from a food source.

As scientists and consumers continue the heated debate over genetically modified food, privately, individual companies are covering their bases. Some groceries are banning GMO-touched foods from their stores; some producers are wiping away any such ingredients from their products.

The first big news came in March when the Whole Foods Market grocery chain became the first retailer in America to require labeling of all GMO food in its stores, within five years. President A.C. Gallo said at the time that some of his stores had seen a 15 percent increase in sales of products that have been labeled GMO-free.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association trade group opposes GMO labeling, stating that "these labels could mislead consumers into believing that these food products are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk," said Louis Finkel, the GMA's executive director of government affairs, in a statement.

Whole Foods' new position will apply to its 339 stores in the United States and Canada. Its stores in Britain already comply since the European Union already requires GMO labeling.

One company to see the trend coming is MegaFood, a whole-foods supplement company founded in New Hampshire in 1973. A vertically integrated family-owned firm, the company controls every aspect of production from farm to tablet.

In early July, after an 18-month process, MegaFood received Non-GMO Project Verification for its Blood Builder Wild Blueberry, Magnesium, Calcium, and Calcium Magnesium and Potassium whole food supplement products. Although all of MegaFoods' supplements are GMO-free, these were the first five products that were able to jump through all the hoops required to earn the Non GMO Project seal.

New Hope sat down with Bethany Davis, regulatory manager of MegaFood, and Robert Craven, CEO, to learn more about how they earned this achievement, and where they are headed next.

newhope360: What aspects of the verification process was difficult?

Bethany DavisMany companies have standard non-GMO documentation that comply with EU regulations and are not willing to provide the additional documentation that the Non-GMO Project requires. It took quite some time to work with select manufacturers to get them on board with the cause and willing to create new documentation that was specific to Non-GMO Project requirements.

newhope360: It seems a little unfair that synthetic ingredients have an easier time getting non-GMO certified than nature-based ingredients.

BDBy their nature, food-based supplements carry a higher risk of containing GMO ingredients because they are made from actual food sources. Supplements comprised of synthetic ingredients (think: petroleum-derived), though arguably nutritionally inferior, carry a lower risk of containing genetically modified food ingredients. So, a synthetic ingredient will get approved for use with much less investigation and required documentation than a nutrient derived from a food source.

newhope360: What can suppliers do to make the certification process easier? And if they do these things, wouldn't it be a way of distinguishing themselves from their competitors?

BDAbsolutely! It would be ideal if more raw material suppliers would submit their ingredients for Non-GMO Product Verification directly. This would give companies looking to verify products better purchasing options from well-qualified companies that are familiar with the documentation.

newhope360: How is the GMO labeling idea and working out? It began with a vision. Is it living up to that vision?

Robert Craven: We're ecstatic for the movement. We've been non-GMO for several years. My issue isn't with non-GMO, I'm a big proponent. My issue is that the Non-GMO Project has become a seal that has outpaced a brand's ability to talk about the issue. And the Non-GMO Project seal in particular is geared toward food. It does a very good job for food. But it has some major holes as it relates to supplements.

Consequently, we sponsored a lunch at Expo West where about 40 people talked openly about the problems with the non-GMO project as it relates to supplements. There are some major gaps.

newhope360: Such as?

RC: The Non-GMO Project Standard is geared toward food products that usually have fewer ingredients than supplements. It allows for a certain number of exemptions from some of the hard-to-obtain documentation that is otherwise required. This works for food products that may have only a handful of ingredients. But not for a multi-vitamin supplement that might have 80 or 90 constituents. One idea is to change those exemptions from a hard number to a percentage of the finished product, which might make more sense for the supplement industry. This approach would be similar to Organic Certification Standards.

newhope360: Were they thinking about supplements when they created the criteria for the seal?

RC: I don’t believe so. It seems very food-focused. Which makes sense given that is where the vast majority of GE materials are being used.

newhope360: So how do these exception ingredients get in the way of getting the non-GMO project seal?

RC: It’s not just the ingredient itself, it can be the constituents to make the ingredient. For example, many USP vitamins are made via fermentation processes, generally using a solvent, which can be derived from corn. If suppliers do not have negative GMO testing at the farm level on the corn used to make the solvent, then manufacturers need to rely on the exemptions.

newhope360: Is there a way to tweak the existing certification criteria to better fit the way supplements are made, or does there need to be a separate seal for supplements?

RC: We have formed a working group of other supplement manufacturers, and we submitted comments to the Non GMO Project as an industry with suggestions for what might work. We still want to maintain the credibility of the seal, but also make it attainable for quality supplement companies.

newhope360: In other words, you want foods with synthetic ingredients to be booted out of the seal, and the rules tweaked so food-based supplements can get in. Is that right?

RC: Seems that makes more sense to me.

With Nora Simmons and Heather Fried

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