Best of 2012 Industry Leader: Megan Westgate

December 7, 2012

Megan Westgate leads the nonprofit Non-GMO Project, whose reach is growing.

According to nonprofit group the Non-GMO Project, the Non-GMO Project Verified seal is North America’s only third-party standard for confirming the absence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The seal is one of the fastest-growing label claims in the natural products industry, according to market researcher SPINS. Citing its most recent numbers, the Non-GMO Project says sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products increased 219% between 2010 and 2011, when the seal first started appearing on packages. Today, more than 6,000 products in the United States and Canada have achieved Non-GMO Project Verified status. Sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products reached $3 billion in the United States at the end the third quarter of 2012-an 89% growth over last year.

Megan Westgate, executive director, has led the organization since its creation in 2007. Westgate was instrumental in developing the Non-GMO Project’s voluntary labeling program. Large mainstream brands have started using the Non-GMO Project Verified seal for the first time this year. “This is a huge achievement because a much broader range of shoppers will now have access to products with our label,” says Westgate. For instance, the nationally sold Silk soymilk brand, which sources its soybeans from the dwindling 7% of non-GMO soybeans grown sustainably in the United States, now uses the seal. Nine of Kashi’s cereals are now Non-GMO Project Verified, and the brand has committed to making sure its others are as well by 2014. (Kashi Co. operates independently but has been owned by the Kellogg Co. since 2000.) A few food products are now the first of their kind to be verified by the Non-GMO Project, including organic Greek yogurt by Straus Family Creamery; Numi’s Organic Tea; and Bee Mana Organic Royal Jelly. In addition, Nature’s Express in Berkeley, CA, is the first restaurant to verify specific menu items as non-GMO; and the EO Organic body product line is the first Non-GMO Project Verified personal care line.

“Consumers have the power to vote with their wallets. As more brands begin to use the seal, we’re confident that more consumers will support those products-and ultimately help encourage more manufacturers to seek out non-GMO ingredients,” Westgate says.

According to Westgate, GMOs are used in close to 80% of all processed foods sold in the United States, especially those made with corn, soybean, or refined beet sugar, according to the Congressional Research Service report on Agricultural Biotechnology. She points out that more than 60 other countries have mandatory GMO labeling regulations, including Australia, Japan, China, Russia, and every country in the EU.

In the United States, consumer awareness of GMOs surged in the past year, thanks in part to a highly controversial bill proposed in California calling for mandatory labeling of GMO-containing food. Proposition 37 did not pass this November’s vote, but Westgate says she wasn’t discouraged-or surprised. “The early polls were very high in our favor, but we were outspent by the biotech companies in campaign ads, by five-and-a-half to one,” she says. “We have always known how extremely difficult it would be to get a labeling law passed in the United States. There are currently 30 other states working on legislation, and meanwhile we’ll continue to focus our efforts on expanding our voluntary labeling program.”

In addition to its labeling program, the Non-GMO Project has taken on numerous other responsibilities. The organization just hosted its third annual Non-GMO Month in October, helping retail partners convey information about GMOs to staff and consumers. The group also assists producers by explaining the preventative measures they can take to help prevent non-GMO crops from being contaminated with GMOs. And, the organization’s technical team keeps a constant eye on new products developed with GMOs. “Recently, a GMO apple was developed, but it hasn’t received approval from the FDA,” Westgate explains. “We’re monitoring these trends and making sure consumers stay informed.”