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How the Non-GMO Project butterfly took flight

More than 35,000 products now carry the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. Here, the program's executive director shares what's behind the growth and how Big Food is getting into the game.

Melaina Juntti

September 11, 2015

7 Min Read
How the Non-GMO Project butterfly took flight

When the Non-GMO Project launched its now-ubiquitous butterfly label in 2010, concern about genetically modified ingredients in America’s food supply was still quite niche. Now, just five years later, it seems everyone’s talking about GMOs and how to avoid them, and consumers are actively seeking out Non-GMO Project Verified products. Executive Director Megan Westgate gives us the lowdown on the organization’s progress, the mounting non-GMO fervor and what’s next for the movement.

(Don't miss her panel at Natural Products Expo East, which will explore the risk and rewards of transparency and how transparency can build a rapport with consumers that extends beyond store walls.)

Natural Foods Merchandiser: How many products are now Non-GMO Project Verified?

Megan Westgate: Our new consumer-facing website, Living Non-GMO, currently lists about 35,000 products. Data through April showed annual sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products at $12 billion. This clearly demonstrates tremendous growth since we launched. According to SPINS, the growth rate as of June 15 was 12.3 percent.

NFM: Are there still lots of products in the verification pipeline?

MW: Yes, we average probably 70 inquiries per week via our website. Demand continues to be extremely strong, largely driven by more consumers wanting verified products. We do hardly any active solicitation of manufacturers.

NFM: Are you fielding more interest from big mainstream brands?

MW: More and more, we’re getting inquiries from major conventional brands, and it’s exciting to see the scale of the companies coming to us now. Brands with products that achieved verification in 2015 include Frito-Lay, Odwalla and Target’s private label, Simply Balanced.

NFM: Supplements: Still tricky to get verified?

MW: It remains a challenging area just because that sector traditionally hasn’t had as much supply chain transparency. So getting the information needed to ensure compliance is often more difficult for supplement companies. But there’s an active effort to transform this. The Coalition for Supplement Sustainability is a new trade organization focused on supply chain issues, and the GMO issue is what galvanized its creation. We’re working closely with this group on trying to get more engagement from the sector and finding that balance between meaningfulness and achievability. We’re looking at possibly developing a “made with non-GMO ingredients” designation, which might be one option for vitamins and supplements.

NFM: Are more ingredient suppliers seeking verification?

MW: Yes, the depth of engagement is increasing at every level of the supply chain. Our end goal is to have significant engagement with the seed sector, because seeds are the foundation of the food supply. We’re currently forming a Seed Advisory Committee to further that focus, and we’re developing our online database of verified ingredients to do more promotion of those items. We get questions all the time from companies looking for specific non-GMO ingredients, so there’s a lot of opportunity for suppliers.

Expo East appearance:
Non-GMO Series: How retailers and brands can build trust through transparency
Friday, September 18
11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.
Room 301
Baltimore Convention Center

NFM: Why are so many consumers now concerned about GMOs when so few even knew about them a few years ago?

MW: There are a number of factors. Certainly, recent state labeling initiatives have driven up awareness, starting with Proposition 37 in California. That got national media covering the issue and mainstream consumers asking questions of mainstream retailers and brands. Of course, the ballots in California, Oregon and Colorado didn’t pass, which was so disappointing, but the campaigns shined a powerful spotlight on the dynamic of American consumers versus Big Ag and biotech. The only reason these initiatives didn’t pass is because the pro-labeling sides were exponentially outspent. That has really helped people understand how the food supply is being controlled and has made them more determined than ever to stand up and demand more information about their food.

NFM: Has the growing presence of the Non-GMO Project label itself also driven awareness?

MW: That’s definitely another factor. From the beginning, we’ve believed it’s so important to give consumers positive solutions so they have a proactive, empowering way to engage with this issue. Before, when there wasn’t a clear way to avoid GMOs, the issue seemed overwhelming and scary. If parents couldn’t avoid feeding their kids GMOs, they didn’t want to hear about them. We’ve given consumers an immediate way to push for supply chain change with every shopping choice.

How have retailers driven this conversation?

MW: Retailers have been a huge part of pushing forward the labeling issue and general awareness of GMOs. More stores are now using non-GMO requirements to vet products. Some won’t accept new products unless they’re organic or Non-GMO Project Verified, or they won’t promote anything with high-risk ingredients unless it’s been verified. Brands have responded. Whole Foods Market’s announcement alone prompted a floodgate of inquiries from brands wanting to get verified. And of course, retailers have played a big role with education. Natural products shoppers depend on retailers to be well versed in GMO information, and the knowledge level of retail staffs has increased significantly in response to that. More than 2,000 stores participated in Non-GMO Month last year, and the level of their participation was awesome. We do an endcap contest, and the number and quality of submissions have gone up every year. The conversations these prompt with consumers are important.

NFM: Some companies say, “We’re already organic, so there’s no need for Non-GMO Project verification.” How do you respond?

MW: Our standard is unique in that it requires ongoing testing of all major high-risk ingredients going into a product. Even though the National Organic Program includes a provision under the new residue-testing rule that certifiers can require testing of GMO content, it’s optional and there’s no threshold for GMO content. I think more companies now get the value of doing both.

NFM: How do you position your label alongside organic for consumers?

MW: We’ve really tried to promote USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified, because they both address important things. As consumers have become more educated about GMOs, they’ve started looking for confirmation that products have not only been made without the intentional use of GMOs, which is what NOP requires, but also that they’ve been tested for GMOs, which is what we require. We are huge organic supporters and realize the importance of avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which is outside the scope of our verification program. So to get the safest, healthiest overall product, shoppers should look for both labels.

NFM: How would mandatory GMO labeling, whether nationwide or by state, impact your label?

MW: We think these are very complementary strategies. There’s an important distinction between mandatory and voluntary labeling: Mandatory labels denote when a product may contain GMOs; voluntary labels, like ours, show that a product has been produced according to best practices for GMO avoidance. Also critical: We have yet to see a mandatory bill that requires testing. State laws are based on affidavits. Vermont passed a law that’s supposed to take effect next summer, and we’ve been working with the state’s attorney general to help establish the rubric for assessing independent verification organizations. So while mandatory labeling rules serve an important purpose, our butterfly label will still be very important for consumers who want the assurance of testing.

NFM: Are you worried that USDA’s Processed Verified label for non-GMO will create confusion?

MW: From what we’ve seen, the public isn’t very aware of this label yet. SunOpta is the only company that’s been approved [as of press time], and this label doesn’t appear on retail products. But if a USDA seal does end up on retail products, there’ll likely be a lot of consumer confusion. USDA is not setting any standards—its approval is based on individual companies’ internal programs, and there won’t be transparency around what their standards are. USDA hasn’t formally announced how this will all work, but we’ll certainly be concerned if the same label means different things for different products. This would be a definite setback. However, given how educated everyone is at this point, it’ll be tough for the label to get much traction.

NFM: Do you expect other third-party non-GMO labels to pop up?

MW: We’ve tried hard to keep the industry unified under one standard. However, given the increased awareness of GMOs, we expect easier-to-achieve labels to be introduced. We’re counting on educated shoppers and savvy retailers to keep the bar high—and keep demanding Non-GMO Project Verified.

About the Author(s)

Melaina Juntti

Melaina Juntti is a longtime freelance journalist, copy editor and marketing professional. With nearly two decades of experience in the natural products industry, she is a frequent contributor to Nutrition Business Journal, Natural Foods Merchandiser and Melaina is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is passionate about hiking, camping, fishing and live music. 

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