'Non-GMO' Seal Identifies Foods Mostly Biotech-Free
By William Neuman
August 29, 2009
Alarmed that genetically engineered crops may be finding their way into organic and
natural foods, an industry group has begun a campaign to test products and label those
that are largely free of biotech ingredients.
With farmers using gene-altered seeds to grow much of North America's corn, soybeans,
canola and sugar, ingredients derived from biotech crops have become hard for food
companies to avoid. But many makers of organic and natural foods are convinced that their
credibility in the marketplace requires them to do so.
The industry group, the Non-GMO Project, says its new label is aimed at reassuring
consumers and will be backed by rigorous testing.
"There's a vulnerability here that the industry is addressing," said Michael J. Potter,
the founder and president of Eden Foods and a board member of the Non-GMO Project, the
organization responsible for the testing and labeling campaign.
As plantings of conventional crops with genetic modifications soared in recent years, Mr.
Potter put in place stringent safeguards to ensure that the organic soybeans he bought
for tofu , soy milk and other products did not come from genetically
engineered plants. He even supplies the seed that farmers use to grow his soybeans.
But many other companies have not been so careful, and as a result, Mr. Potter said, the
organic and natural foods industry is like "a dirty room" in need of cleaning.
"What I've heard, what I know, what I've seen, what's been tested and the test results
that have been shared with me, clearly indicate that the room is very dirty," Mr. Potter
Hundreds of products already claim on their packaging that they do not contain
genetically modified ingredients, but with little consistency in the labeling and little
assurance that the products have actually been tested. The new labeling campaign hopes to
clear up such confusion.
The initials GMO stand for genetically modified organism. Participants in the Non-GMO
Project include major players in the organic and natural foods business, like Whole Foods
Whole Foods plans to place the project's seal on hundreds of products it markets under
its "365" store brand. Nature's Path, a leading manufacturer of organic packaged foods
like cereals, frozen waffles and granola bars, has also embraced the initiative.
The project's seal, a butterfly perched on two blades of grass in the form of a check
mark, will begin appearing on packaged foods this fall. The project will not try to
guarantee that foods are entirely free of genetically modified ingredients, but that
manufacturers have followed procedures, including testing, to ensure that crucial
ingredients contain no more than 0.9 percent of biotech material. That is the same
threshold used in Europe, where labeling is required if products contain higher levels.
Dag Falck, a project board member who is the organic program manager of Nature's Path,
said testing and labeling were needed to protect the industry from the steady spread of
biotech ingredients. His company has been testing for such ingredients for several years
and is strengthening those measures.
"The thing is, if we have a contamination problem that's growing in organics, what will
happen one day when someone tests something and finds out that organics is contaminated
beyond a reasonable amount, say 5 or 10 percent?" he said. "Consumers would lose all
faith in organics."
While a consensus has developed among scientists that the genetically modified crops now
in cultivation are safe, many biotech opponents say that questions remain over whether
such foods pose health risks and whether the crops, and agricultural practices associated
with them, could damage the environment.
The genetic modifications used in major crops in the United States largely involve traits
beneficial to farmers. Some make the plants resistant to insects while others allow them
to tolerate sprayings of a common herbicide used to combat weeds.
Plantings of crops with genetic modifications have risen sharply over the last decade, to
the point that about 85 percent of corn and canola and 91 percent of soybean acreage this
year was sown with biotech seed. Few food products in the supermarket lack at least some
element derived from these crops, including oils, corn syrup, corn starch and soy
The most recent agricultural sector to convert is sugar beets. Once this year's crop is
processed, close to half of the nation's sugar will come from gene-engineered plants.
Monsanto , a major developer of such seeds, has said it plans to develop
biotech wheat, and scientists are moving forward on other crops.
Farmers who want to plant without using biotechnology are often surrounded by neighbors
whose fields are sown with genetically modified crops. And manufacturers who want to
avoid genetically engineered crops and their byproducts find that increasingly difficult
Pollen from a biotech field may be carried by wind or insects to fertilize plants in a
nonbiotech plot. At harvest and afterward, biotech and nonbiotech crops and their
byproducts are often handled with the same farm equipment, trucks and so on. If the
equipment is not properly cleaned, the two types of foodstuffs can mix.
While federal organic regulations bar farmers from planting genetically engineered seed,
they are silent on what should be done about issues like pollination from nearby biotech
crops. Few regulations govern foods labeled "natural," but retailers say consumers of
those products want them to be free of genetically engineered ingredients.
"There's some GMO presence in almost everything today," said Lynn Clarkson, president of
Clarkson Grain Company, in Cerro Gordo, Ill., which specializes in handling nonbiotech
corn and soybeans.
Mr. Clarkson tests every truckload that farmers bring him, rejecting 5 to 7 percent of
corn and soybean loads because they contain more than 0.9 percent of genetically modified
The Non-GMO project works with companies to test their ingredients and improve
manufacturing processes. It will also spot test products in stores.
Officials with the project would not provide details of the test results conducted so far
under the program.
Sandra Kepler, the chief executive of Food Chain Global Advisors, a consulting company
that administers the project, said it was too early to draw conclusions and that much of
the testing had been done on ingredients used by companies with safeguards already in
The executives of several companies participating in the project, including Eden and
Nature's Path, said their products had come up clean in the tests. But several executives
also said they were aware of positive tests for other companies, which they would not
"People are going to be reluctant to say, `My brand of cereal, we found some contaminated
products and we changed sources,' " said Michael S. Funk, a project board member who is
co-founder and chairman of United Natural
Foods , a major distributor. "Nobody wants to have that information out there." He said, however, that he believed the number of cases was
Labeling of food products for biotech content, or lack of it, has long been
controversial. The biotechnology industry fought off early efforts to require labeling of
genetically modified foods. Then, when some natural foods makers began using labels
saying they were free of biotech ingredients, the Food and Drug
Administration criticized the labels as potentially misleading. Labeling remains a gray area, with a host of products continuing to make such
Supporters of the biotech industry questioned whether the new labeling campaign would
pass muster with the F.D.A. "It's very important that the labels on those products are
used for marketing and branding purposes and not to make statements about food
safety ," said Karen Batra, a director of communications of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, a lobbying group.
The F.D.A. said it did not have authority to approve labels before they appeared in the
marketplace. Once a label is in use, the agency could initiate a review if it received
consumer complaints or had concerns the label was misleading.
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