Blog Post

Taking the Food Industry by Storm: Non-GMO Project Verified

Woman in grocery isle

Author: Lucy Anderson and Evelyn Drawec

Whether you are deeply concerned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food supply, or think such concerns are misplaced, there is one thing everyone can agree on: non-GMO verified foods have taken the food industry by storm. The leading ecolabel in this arena – the Non-GMO Project Verified butterfly– now graces the packaging on countless products on supermarket shelves, thanks in part to Whole Food Co.’s edict calling for such verification.

It’s no wonder. In 2014, a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey found that 70% of American consumers said they wanted to avoid GMOs in their food. A Pew Research survey in 2015 found that 57% believe GMOs in food are unsafe, and only 37% thought they were safe. And in 2016, a Center for Food Safety survey of likely voters found that 89% favor mandatory labels on GMO foods or foods containing GMO ingredients.

As a Non-GMO Project technical administrator, we are charged with the task of evaluating products to verify their conformance with Non-GMO Project standard. So we thought it might be useful to share with you a bit more information about what all of this means.

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What is a GMO Anyway?

The Non-GMO Project describes a GMO as “a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods (also called gene splicing), gene modification or transgenic technology. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”

What genetically modified crops are currently being grown on a commercial basis?

It is somewhat jaw-dropping to realize that the thousands upon thousands of food products sporting a Non-GMO Project Verified label really boil down to just a few ingredients. At the moment, only seven food crops in commercial production have genetically modified varietals: alfalfa, canola, corn, papaya, soy, sugar beet, and zucchini/yellow summer squash. Ingredients made from these crops are prolific in our food supply. The Non-GMO Project considers any ingredient or product containing one of the above crops as high-risk. In addition, some of the microbes used in food production and processing are high-risk when they are produced through genetic modification and must be evaluated.

What traits are GM crops grown to enhance?

Though a wide range of beneficial applications of genetic modification (GM) are touted, such as reducing water consumption and increasing vitamin content, the most common GM traits are herbicide tolerance (in corn, soy, canola, alfalfa, and sugar beet), insect resistance (in corn and cotton), and virus resistance (in papaya and zucchini/squash).

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What products are covered under the standard?

Here are some common products currently evaluated under the Non-GMO Project standard:

Animal and bee-derived products: Dairy products, eggs, meat, fish, and honey are evaluated based on what foods the animals consume. A significant amount of the GM corn, soy, and alfalfa grown is used for animal feed. Bees can forage near GMO crop cultivation, and farmed fish are at risk for consuming GMO feed.

Processed products: Many sodas and candies contain corn syrup produced from GMO corn. Clothing is often produced from GMO cotton.

Food additives: Many processed products like breads, extracts made with corn-derived ethanol, alternative dairy products, and vitamins can be produced with GMO ingredients and additives.

Alcohol: Beer and wine use yeasts that can be genetically modified, and some hard alcohols like whiskey and vodka can be corn-derived.

How is Non-GMO status verified?

Conforming companies must provide evidence of practices that reduce the risk of GMO contamination from at-risk inputs and ingredients. Evaluation criteria include: traceability, segregation, risk assessment, testing of high-risk inputs, and quality control management. The standard also requires genetics-based testing at critical control points to be performed by an approved ISO-17025 accredited lab to ensure that “action thresholds” are not exceeded.

We’re happy to answer additional questions about the subject. Please contact Ned Halaby with any that you may have.