GMO-free label gets USDA's stamp of approval
By STEVE BROWN
The USDA has approved a label that verifies the absence of genetically modified products in some foods.
The Non-GMO Project, a nationwide organization based in Bellingham, Wash., sought the approval "pretty intensively" over the past year, said Megan Westgate, executive director of the organization.
The project submitted documentation on how it assesses compliance in the process, the database and the training of inspectors, attesting to its "due diligence to make sure it's a meaningful claim," she said.
The label approval is specifically for meat and liquid egg products.
"There are no GMO animals on the market right now, but our standard requires testing of the animal feed," she said. The label attests that certified products came from animals that never ate feed containing genetically engineered ingredients like corn, soy and alfalfa.
Most product labels in grocery stores are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and do not require pre-market approval, she said. The main exceptions are meat and liquid egg products, which are regulated by the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service.
One other exception is alcohol labels, which are regulated by the Tax and Trade Bureau and also require pre-market approval. "We are just starting the process with them," she said.
The verification process tests at the most efficient point in the production chain, where ingredients are least processed and consolidated in the largest amounts, according to the group's website. From there, traceability and segregation ensure that the tested ingredient maintains its purity.
The Non-GMO Project does not have its own laboratories, Westgate said, instead using 10 accredited labs in the U.S., Germany, China and India.
"We have a technical team that oversees compliance with our standards, with on-site inspection and paperwork before issuing verification," she said.
The FSIS "allows companies to demonstrate on their labels that they meet a third-party certifying organization's standards, provided that the third-party organization and the company can show that the claims are truthful, accurate and not misleading," spokeswoman Cathy Cochran said.
She said the approval for labeling meats did not signal "any new policy regarding non-GE or non-GMO products."
Starting with a voluntary initiative in 2007, the label started showing up in stores in 2010.
"It's the fastest-growing label in the industry," Westgate said. "We have 800 brands and 10,000 products." It's not just specialty stores carrying the products, but also large grocers like Costco and Walmart, she said.
The GMO-free label does not duplicate the USDA organic label, she said. The National Organic Program identifies genetic modification as an excluded method, but GMOs are not a prohibited substance.
"There is the risk of GMO contamination on all products, so our testing adds to organic," she said. "We often tell people our personal gold standard is organic products that also have the Non-GMO label."