Would overlap between USDA Organic and the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act confuse consumers?
In the United States, GMO labeling is on the brink of becoming federal law. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFE; H.R. 1599) by a wide margin this July. SAFE, as written, emphasizes inherent safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and instead of a mandatory law requiring GMO labeling, SAFE would establish a voluntary, USDA-led, nationwide non-GMO certification program. The bill now awaits a Senate vote. (Click here for more on SAFE and how it will also ban any existing mandatory state-level laws requiring GMO labeling.)
If enacted, SAFE’s federal non-GMO seal would join a handful of non-GMO NGO seals already on the market, most notably the Non-GMO Project’s popular Non-GMO Project Verified seal. Would food marketers flock to a federal seal over independent third-party seals? Time will tell.
Perhaps a better question to ask is whether we need another non-GMO seal at all-and especially at the federal level-considering that the United States already has a nationwide labeling program in place that covers GMO vetting: the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP prohibits GMO use, and any product labeled USDA Organic should exclude GMOs-a fact many consumers don’t realize.
Do we need SAFE?
GMOs under the NOP
First, understand how USDA’s National Organic Program treats GMOs. GMOs sit alongside other ingredients on the NOP’s list of forbidden substances, such as pesticides and most synthetic substances. But the USDA Organic seal does not guarantee that certified-organic products are GMO-free, as discussed later. NOP and third-party auditors also do not routinely test most ingredients/products for GMOs unless they suspect contamination.
NOP auditors, rather, inspect and verify that a company’s farming and handling processes are sufficient to protect the ingredient from contracting a GMO. Think of it more as prevention, or processed-based certification, said NOP head Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), back in 2011.
“Organic operations implement preventive practices based on site-specific risk factors, such as neighboring conventional farms or shared farm equipment of processing facilities,” McEvoy wrote in a 2013 blog post.“For example, some farmers plant their seeds early or late to avoid organic and GMO crops flowering at the same time (which can cause cross-pollination). Others harvest crops prior to flowering or sign cooperative agreements with neighboring farms to avoid planting GMO crops next to organic ones. Farmers also designate the edges of their land as a buffer zone where the land is managed organically, but the crops aren’t sold as organic. Any shared farm or processing equipment must be thoroughly cleaned to prevent unintended exposure to GMOs or prohibited substances.”
Gwendolyn Wyard, senior director of technical and regulatory affairs, Organic Trade Association (OTA; Washington, DC), adds, “The use of GMOs is prohibited during the production (farming) and handling (processing) of certified-organic products and extends to all organic label categories (‘100% Organic,’ ‘Organic,’ and ‘Made with Organic’) and all ingredients (organic and non-organic, including minor ingredients such as flavors, yeast, and cornstarch) contained in the products." Plus, she says, “All non-organic ingredients and processing aids allowed in the 5% or 30% non-organic portion of an NOP-certified product must be non-GMO.”
Wyard does point out that NOP certifying agents do conduct residue testing on a “minimum of 5%” of facilities they audit “to determine if prevention practices are adequate to avoid contact with prohibited substances such as pesticides, antibiotics, and GMOs.”
Organic farmers must keep written records documenting their procedures. Auditors review the procedures for soundness and follow up with on-site inspections to ensure farmers are following their “organic system plan,” as the NOP calls it.
Now Another USDA Option: Processed Verified
In addition to the NOP, this year USDA began using its Process Verified Program (PVP) to vet non-GMO operations.
PVP’s website describes PVP verification as providing agricultural companies “the opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products or services.”Essentially, PVP verification reassures consumers that a company is meeting any operational standards it sets for itself (or any third-party standards the company chooses), including goals for agricultural sourcing, feeding, raising, or processing. A company seeking PVP verification pays a USDA inspector to audit its practices. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service “requires that a company identify its process points and, after approving the system, audits those process points,” a USDA spokesperson explains to Nutritional Outlook. “In addition, AMS provides transparency by listing that particular Processed Verified Program and the standard(s) on which it is based online.”
PVP users vary. Livestock handlers can use PVP verification to testify to how they feed and raise their animals, for instance. This May, ingredient supplier SunOpta (Brampton, ON, Canada) became the first company ever to earn USDA PVP verification validating the company’s non-GMO soybeans and corn.
The USDA representative says SunOpta came to the agency looking for a way to verify its non-GMO claims. “When a producer or industry stakeholder has a standard they want to consistently meet, AMS works with that customer to develop an auditing solution to verify their claim. USDA’s Process Verified Program was a suitable fit in this case,” the spokesperson says.
SunOpta CEO Steve Bromley said in a May 18 press release, “Becoming the first PVP-verified non-GMO food manufacturing facility in the United States is a great honor for SunOpta and consistent with our commitment to non-GMO and organic food products, which are in high demand with today's consumers. Having USDA verify that we are complying with our standards ensures that our customers can be confident that they are getting the highest-quality non-GMO soybeans and corn. We look forward to implementing the USDA PVP program at other SunOpta facilities across our vertically integrated platform.”
In the SunOpta press release, U.S. Congressman Tim Walz described PVP as “the perfect example of the private sector and the public sector working in tandem to balance the needs of both industry and consumer.” He added, “I applaud the work of both SunOpta and USDA for their innovative approach. The voluntary certification gives certainty to consumers and is flexible enough that it doesn't put undue burdens on companies that choose to use GMOs in their products.”
But David Carter, CEO of FoodChain ID (Fairfield, IA), points out that the PVP “is not benchmarking one company’s practices against another’s, or against an independent standard. It’s only approving that a company’s process is adequate for meeting its own internal definition of non-GMO.”
[Quote added on 9/3/15]: Plus, he says, as far as he understands it, the PVP seal is not meant to be an "outward-facing consumer seal" that companies market on retail products. "Rather, it is a business-to-business seal that tells a potential buyer of that ingredient that the ingredient was verified under the USDA program," he says. "I have not seen anyone in the USDA or elsewhere claim that this program will be used to verify multi-ingredient end-products such as frozen meals, breakfast cereals, soy shakes, etc., as being non-GMO."
Nevertheless, in a National Public Radio interview, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack claimed that other firms are now “lining up” to use PVP for GMO vetting. “Any company that wishes to be verified under the Process Verified Program for a non-GMO/GE process could apply for AMS services by describing the process and standard it plans to use,” USDA’s spokesperson says.
The spokesperson confirms that USDA will continue to offer non-GMO PVP verification alongside the NOP. “It is not duplicative to have two programs, and both programs will continue to coexist,” the spokesperson tells Nutritional Outlook. “The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering. The organic regulations also address a whole host of standards and requirements that operations must meet to be certified. Some companies may only be interested in non-GMO/GE verification, which makes the USDA Process Verified Program a good fit.”
Companies Still Seek Non-GMO Seals
Despite NOP and PVP audits USDA offers to affirm non-GMO practices, for now food marketers who want to capture customers actively looking for non-GMOs labels still prefer certification seals that specifically mention “Non-GMO” front and center. And this has made non-GMO marketing a big business today. Sales of GMO-free food and beverages in the United States alone reached $200 million last year, according to Packaged Facts.
Corporate giants like General Mills are going their own way, advertising their own-company GMO claims on packaging. More often than not, however, companies are turning to third-party non-GMO certifiers like the Non-GMO Project (Bellingham, WA). To date, the nonprofit group has bestowed its Non-GMO Project Verified seal on more than 27,000 products and “is the fastest-growing label in the natural products industry,” according to the group’s website.
Different Seals, Different Standards
So what does a company get when it chooses to pursue an NGO consumer-facing non-GMO seal instead of-or perhaps in addition to-the federal USDA Organic consumer seal? The distinctions are important and go well beyond whether or not a label specifically spells out “Non-GMO.”
USDA NOP auditors, as mentioned, do not routinely test for GMO content unless they suspect GMO contamination. The Non-GMO Project, on the other hand, does require testing of all ingredients deemed “high-risk inputs.” (Testing is done at the ingredient level versus on finished products. According to the group, “Testing finished product is not a reliably accurate measure of GMO presence.”)
Third-party technical administrators perform annual auditing on behalf of the Non-GMO Project and conduct on-site testing of “all major GMO-risk ingredients.” (For ingredients of low risk, auditors “conduct a thorough review of ingredient specification sheets to determine absence of GMO risk.”) Current technical administrators include FoodChain ID, which cofounded the Non-GMO Project’s product-verification program and was the program’s first technical administrator; NSF International (Ann Arbor, MI); Where Food Comes From (IMI Global; Castle Rock, CO); and SCS Global Services (Emeryville, CA).
To test for GMO content, these auditors use genetics-based testing methods like polymerase chain reaction (PCR). FoodChain ID’s David Carter offers a glimpse of how this works:
Companies can test unprocessed material such as grain or seed on site with strip tests, which measure whether the protein coded for by the genetically engineered DNA (often herbicide resistance or insecticide) is present. Strip tests play an important role in the production process because they're rapid, can be performed on site, and provide a clear visual indicator of GMO presence or absence. The disadvantages of strip tests are that they are not as sensitive as tests that quantify GMO at the DNA level and, because protein is sensitive to degradation from processing, they're only suitable for testing unprocessed material.
PCR tests measure GMO content at the DNA level and are exquisitely specific and sensitive, often having a limit of detection of 0.01% and a limit of quantification of 0.01%. PCR tests can be used for a wider variety of samples, including some processed materials, and are the industry standard for verifying claims and demonstrating compliance with regulations. They are most often performed by third-party accredited laboratories, as they require specialized equipment. Both strip tests and PCR testing have been used for close to 20 years, and technology advancements have allowed quantitation at lower levels.
USDA has no officially established threshold for GMO content. “Unlike many pesticides, there aren’t specific tolerance levels in the USDA organic regulations for GMOs,” USDA’s McEvoy wrote in his 2013 blog post. The NOP abides by the Environmental Protection Agency’s 5% tolerance level for pesticides, but “no federal agency, including EPA or USDA, has established tolerance levels for the inadvertent presence of the products of excluded methods (GMOs),” McEvoy wrote in 2011.
By contrast, the Non-GMO Project abides by the same 0.9% GMO-content threshold that many global regulators do for human food, ingredients, supplements, and personal care products. The European Union’s mandatory GMO-labeling law, for instance, also uses the 0.9% threshold to denote GMO presence.
USDA may not have a threshold for GMO contamination, but FoodChain ID’s Carter commends the NOP nonetheless: “With that said, overall, the organic industry does an excellent job in avoiding GM contamination, and buying organic is a very reliable way to avoid GMOs.”
But, he also points out, “Not all products can be tested for GMOs if they contained highly processed ingredients in which the DNA has been destroyed during manufacturing. Likewise, organic dairy or meat cannot be tested for GMOs used in feed. Again, while organic producers are very diligent about using verified-organic ingredients, participating in programs like the Non-GMO Project provides another layer of rigorous scrutiny to ensure that best practices are being followed by all suppliers to avoid GMO contamination.”
No Program Is Perfect
At the end of the day, no current GMO-testing program can guarantee 100% absence of GMOs. The Non-GMO Project and USDA both acknowledge that trace amounts may slip through the cracks. Again, FoodChain ID’s Carter provides some insight:
“First, the science of testing for GMOs has a limit of detection of .0001, or 1 in 10,000. In other words, the technology available to test for GMOs can never declare anything GM-free, as there could be a level below the limit of detection and the technology would not be able to measure it,” he explains. “On a global level, government regulatory authorities as well as private industry programs have generally looked at a practical threshold that is attainable given the prevalence of GMOs in many markets and the potential for contamination in storage and processing as well as field drift.” For human food, most global authorities set their maximum GMO-content threshold between 0.1%–0.9%, he adds. (And, in the EU, he says, regulators have not set a threshold for animal feed.)
Due to the inability to guarantee 100% GMO-free, USDA will not automatically revoke a company’s USDA Organic seal if a product is found to contain trace GMOs. This means that USDA Organic–labeled products could actually have some GMO content. “National Organic Program policy states that trace amounts of GMOs don’t automatically mean the farm is in violation of the USDA organic regulations,” McEvoy wrote in 2013. “In these cases, the certifying agent will investigate how the inadvertent presence occurred and recommend how it can be better prevented in the future.” But a firm must show that it has taken reasonable steps to avoid GMO contact and that the GMO content is unintentional.
SAFE: More of the Same?
In light of what current non-GMO certifying/verifying programs provide or don’t provide, would the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act bring anything different-and better-to the table?
SAFE would provide a federal seal stating the words Non-GMO. For some consumers, organic’s non-GMO assurance isn’t enough, and some consumers may perceive a non-GMO seal from the government as more trustworthy. SAFE proponents also contend that by preempting any state-level GMO-labeling laws, SAFE would help eliminate a nationwide patchwork of labels.
But on a macro scale-at least according to what the bill outlines-what SAFE now proposes and how USDA’s NOP already handles GMO prevention aren’t significantly different. Judging by what’s not in the bill, SAFE would not establish a GMO threshold nor would it implement routine testing; instead it would audit “process controls” much like the NOP does, addressing contact prevention in production and handling.
SAFE’s authors mention how closely the bill aligns itself with USDA’s NOP, stating that it would, “to the greatest extent practicable, establish consistency between the certification programs established under subtitle E of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946…the organic certification program established under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990…and other voluntary labeling programs administered by the Secretary.” One example of crossover? Under SAFE, any product bearing the USDA Organic seal could also bear the new federal non-GMO seal.
It’s still unknown how federal non-GMO certification would work alongside-and in concert with-federal organic certification. Would a non-GMO program step in to handle NOP’s GMO vetting? We won’t know this unless SAFE goes into law.
For many, the NOP is a worthwhile role model. After all, most agree that the program, despite any faults, has successfully regulated the organic market now for 15 years, as evidenced by today’s $39 billion U.S. food and non-food organic industry. It’s possible that a non-GMO certification program modeled after the NOP could serve the food industry as well as the NOP has all these years.
Michael McGuffin, president, American Herbal Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD), says, “In AHPA’s view, a voluntary federal labeling program for GMO absence modeled after NOP will provide more consistent information to consumers while minimizing the expense and potential confusion of mandatory labeling laws for GMO presence at either the state or federal level.”
But not all are convinced that we need the changes SAFE proposes, and some believe that the status quo works. (When questioned whether USDA has encountered problems because it does not have a federal non-GMO standard in place now, the agency’s spokesperson told Nutritional Outlook, “This has not presented challenges.”)
If SAFE were to pass, it’s vital to ensure that the new law doesn’t disturb what’s already working in the NOP, cautions the Organic Trade Association’s Gwendolyn Wyard. “USDA’s NOP regulations prohibit the use of GMOs during the production or handling of any organic product. OTA believes that third-party certification under USDA NOP as ‘100% Organic,’ ‘Organic,’ or ‘Made with Organic (specified ingredients or food groups)’ is sufficient to substantiate a claim that a product is non-GMO.”
“However,” she continues, “OTA also recognizes that each company may need to respond to competitive pressures and consumer needs; therefore, OTA does not oppose the decision to voluntarily seek out additional non-GMO verification. However, any additional standard created by USDA for ‘non-GMO’ should not conflict with the organic standards or set a bar lower than the organic standards….Consistency with the existing USDA organic regulations is critical.”
Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, supports current conditions-namely, how the Non-GMO Project and the NOP work in tandem.
“The National Organic Program has been incredibly successful in providing consumers access to food that is grown in the healthiest way possible. The rigorous requirements of the National Organic Program help prevent GMO contamination of organic foods through a process-based approach, which includes testing when GMO contamination is suspected,” she says. Her group “builds upon the NOP’s measures by ensuring that all major GMO-risk ingredients are tested prior to use in a Verified product, as we believe that ongoing testing is critical to identifying and eliminating GMO contamination.”
“In our experience,” Westgate says, “attributes outside of organic, such as Non-GMO Project Verified, can provide a bridge to the [USDA] certified-organic label. We see organic as very important, and for many of us, our gold standard is both organic and Non-GMO Project Verified.”
More Seals, More Confusion
Both Wyard and Westgate also allude to possible consumer confusion SAFE could introduce if it were to join the USDA Organic seal and numerous other private seals on the market.
“Differing standards set for non-GMO claims could easily increase confusion in the marketplace as to what non-GMO means and dilute the meaning of the organic label,” Wyard says.
In a July 24, 2015, blog post, Westgate plainly acknowledged that SAFE would directly compete with the Non-GMO Project.
“While [SAFE’s non-GMO certification program] won’t remove the Non-GMO Project Verified seal from the marketplace, the bill as written would create a competing label that would confuse shoppers and undermine the tremendous progress we’ve made on setting a high standard for GMO avoidance. This is a serious concern for the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that has been working since 2007 to successfully establish a consistent and rigorous standard for non-GMO claims,” she wrote.
Commenting for this article, she adds, “In the event that H.R. 1599 were to pass and the USDA created its own non-GMO certification program, it would operate to drastically lower standards than those of the Non-GMO Project.”
The future of U.S. GMO labeling is now in the hands of lawmakers. “This is the most important fight there will ever be on the GMO issue,” Westgate wrote. One can only hope that the winner is the consumer searching for clarity and meaning in the non-GMO marketplace.
* Correction: This article was edited on 9/3/15 at 4:30 PM PST to indicate that USDA's Process Verified Program seal is not a consumer-facing label.
Lead Photo © iStockphoto.com. Edited by Quinn Williams. Copyright by Nutritional Outlook magazine.
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