Is That Corn Genetically Altered? Don’t Ask the FDA


Last year $2.4 billion worth of products were sold with a label saying they do not contain ingredients from genetically modified organisms, but the claim wasn’t backed by any government regulatory agency.

Instead, it came from the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization that offers third-party verification that food products are not genetically modified.

Unlike items labeled organic, non-GMO products do not receive endorsement from the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration. Those regulators have specific criteria for organic products, and consumers know that any food with an organic label has met those standards.

Brands such as Silk, Kashi and Simply Soy Yogurt have turned to the GMO Project for support to tout their products as non-GMO.

“Consumers want non-GMO choices, so we are working with food companies and retailers to make sure that [these options are] available,” said Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project. “Our efforts do not hinge on government regulations or decisions about whether or not to label.”

Natural food retailers started the Non-GMO Project, according to Westgate.

“They were getting a lot of questions from shoppers about how to avoid GMOs. It became clear that in the absence of mandatory labeling we needed to have a third-party verification system,” she said.

Since 2008 the organization has supplied a verification mark for products that have undergone its review process. More than 500 brands carry the Non-GMO seal.

The process of earning the label is rigorous, and ongoing testing is required for all ingredients that are at high risk of GMO contamination, Westgate said.

Craig Shiesley, senior vice president of plant-based food and beverages at WhiteWave, said his company’s Silk brand earned the Non-GMO Project’s label in 2011, but started the transition in 2010.

“For us, one of the underpinnings of being natural is being non-genetically modified,” Shiesley said. “It’s hard for you to call your product natural if your [product is] not non-GMO.”

The entire health and wellness food industry should have transparent labeling, Shiesley said.

“To me this is not just a competitive advantage. I’m hoping the whole industry elevates toward this standard. Regardless of what the scientific the data says, we know that our consumer wants their food wholesome, whole, not genetically engineered,” Shiesley said.

“It’s a very fundamental right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding our families, and our label is the fastest-growing label in the natural market,” Westgate said.

Others are lobbying the FDA to step in. The “Just Label it Campaign” has petitioned the agency to require labeling of products containing GM ingredients.

“They have collected almost 1.3 million signatures—more than two times the number of signatures the FDA has ever received for any other food-related petition. … It’s a clear indication that Americans want this information,” Westgate said.

Currently, the FDA says food manufacturers may indicate through voluntary labeling whether foods have or have not been developed through genetic engineering, provided that such labeling is truthful and not misleading.

“We recognize and appreciate the strong interest that many consumers have in knowing whether a food was produced using genetic engineering,” said FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman.

GMOs are banned or labeled in more than 60 countries. Last week, Connecticut became the first state to pass a bill requiring producers to label items sold there containing GM ingredients. The catch: The legislation will go into effect only if other states decide to do the same.

It’s unclear if other states will follow suit, but many major consumer package goods companies have lobbied against mandatory GMO labeling.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the interest of PepsiCoGeneral MillsKellogg and several other CPG companies opposing mandatory labeling, has also lobbied against such legislation.

Their position is that mandatory labeling will lead to an increase in grocery prices and mislead consumers to believe there is something inherently wrong with genetically modified products.

“The use of genetically modified foods and ingredients is safe,” said Brian Kennedy, a spokesperson for the association. “According to a number of U.S. regulatory agencies that study and monitor the topic, including the FDA, there are no health risks associated with the use of genetically modified foods and ingredients.”

Many natural food advocates and consumers who oppose the use of GM ingredients in products believe consuming them may have detrimental long-term effects, which Kennedy disputed.

“All GM technology does is add desirable traits from one plant to another, without introducing anything unnatural or using chemicals, so crops grow quicker, are more plentiful … They are more nutritious, require fewer pesticides, help foods have a longer shelf life and keep production costs down; they ultimately lower costs to consumers by about 20 to 30 percent,” he said.

But opponents want to avoid them. Westgate said the recent discovery of mystery wheat in Oregon is a perfect example of why GM products aren’t safe.

“When GMOs are grown out in the environment, contamination happens and it’s not possible to control it. That’s a real liability to our food supply because these are experimental organisms [and] we don’t know what the long-term impact is to human health or the environment,” Westgate said.

While the debate goes on, some say, labeling at least provides consumers with information to make a decision. The Non-GMO Project, and other efforts like it, may wind up creating a standard within the industry.


Major Grocer To Label Foods With Gene-Modified Content

(New York Times)

Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, on Friday became the first retailer in the United States to require labeling of all genetically modified foods sold in its stores, a move that some experts said could radically alter the food industry.

A. C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, said the new labeling requirement, to be in place within five years, came in response to consumer demand. “We’ve seen how our customers have responded to the products we do have labeled,” Mr. Gallo said. “Some of our manufacturers say they’ve seen a 15 percent increase in sales of products they have labeled.”

Genetically modified ingredients are deeply embedded in the global food supply, having proliferated since the 1990s. Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States, for example, have been genetically modified. The alterations make soybeans resistant to a herbicide used in weed control, and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide. Efforts are under way to produce a genetically altered apple that will spoil less quickly, as well as genetically altered salmon that will grow faster. The announcement ricocheted around the food industry and excited proponents of labeling. “Fantastic,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group that favors labeling.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group that represents major food companies and retailers, issued a statement opposing the move. “These labels could mislead consumers into believing that these food products are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk,” Louis Finkel, the organization’s executive director of government affairs, said in the statement.

Mr. Finkel noted that the Food and Drug Administration, as well as regulatory and scientific bodies including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, had deemed genetically modified products safe.

The labeling requirements announced by Whole Foods will include its 339 stores in the United States and Canada. Since labeling is already required in the European Union, products in its seven stores in Britain are already marked if they contain genetically modified ingredients. The labels currently used show that a product has been verified as free of genetically engineered ingredients by the Non GMO Project, a nonprofit certification organization. The labels Whole Foods will use in 2018, which have yet to be created, will identify foods that contain such ingredients.

The shift by Whole Foods is the latest in a series of events that has intensified the debate over genetically modified foods. Voters defeated a hard-fought ballot initiative in California late last year after the biotech industry, and major corporations like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, spent millions of dollars to fight the effort. Other initiatives have qualified for the ballot in Washington State and Missouri, while consumers across the country have been waging a sort of guerrilla movement in supermarkets, pasting warning stickers on products suspected of having G.M.O. ingredients from food companies that oppose labeling. Proponents of labeling insist that consumers have a right to know about the ingredients in the food they eat, and they contend that some studies in rats show that bioengineered food can be harmful.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, a campaign for a federal requirement to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients, called the Whole Foods decision a “game changer.”

“We’ve had some pretty big developments in labeling this year,” Mr. Hirshberg said, adding that 22 states now have some sort of pending labeling legislation. “Now, one of the fastest-growing, most successful retailers in the country is throwing down the gantlet.”

He compared the potential impact of the Whole Foods announcement to Wal-Mart’s decision several years ago to stop selling milk from cows treated with growth hormone. Today, only a small number of milk cows are injected with the hormone.

Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for BIO, a trade group representing the biotech industry, said it was too early to determine what impact, if any, the Whole Foods decision would have. “It looks like they want to expand their inventory of certified organic and non-G.M.O. lines,” Ms. Batra said. “The industry has always supported the voluntary labeling of food for marketing reasons.”

She contended, however, that without scientific evidence showing that genetically modified foods caused health or safety issues, labeling was unnecessary.

Nonetheless, companies have shown a growing willingness to consider labeling. Some 20 major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart, met recently in Washington to discuss genetically modified labeling.

Coincidentally, the American Halal Company, a food company whose Saffron Road products are sold in Whole Foods stores, on Friday introduced the first frozen food, a chickpea and spinach entree, that has been certified not to contain genetically modified ingredients.

More than 90 percent of respondents to a poll of potential voters in the 2012 elections, conducted by the Mellman Group in February last year, were in favor of labeling genetically modified foods. Some 93 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans in the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent, favored it.

But in the fight over the California initiative, Proposition 37, the opponents succeeded in persuading voters that labeling would have a negative effect on food prices and the livelihood of farmers.

That fight, however, has cost food companies in other ways. State legislatures and regulatory agencies are pondering labeling on their own, and consumers have been aggressive in criticizing some of the companies that fought the initiative, using Twitter and Facebook to make their views known.

Buoyed by what they see as some momentum in the labeling war, consumers, organic farmers and food activists plan to hold an “eat-in” outside the F.D.A.’s offices next month to protest government policies on genetically modified crops and foods. Whole Foods, which specializes in organic products, tends to be favored by those types of consumers, and it enjoys strong sales of its private-label products, whose composition it controls. The company thus risks less than some more traditional food retailers in taking a stance on labeling.

In 2009, Whole Foods began submitting products in its 365 Everyday Value private-label line to verification by the Non GMO Project.

But even Whole Foods has not been immune to criticism on the G.M.O. front. A report by Cornucopia, “Cereal Crimes,” revealed that its 365 Corn Flakes line contained genetically modified corn. By the time the report came out in October 2011, the product had been reformulated and certified as organic.

Today, Whole Foods’ shelves carry some 3,300 private-label and branded products that are certified, the largest selection of any grocery chain in the country.

Mr. Gallo said Whole Foods did not consult with its suppliers about its decision and informed them of it only shortly before making its announcement Friday. He said Whole Foods looked forward to working with suppliers on the labeling.

Read More:

( Last year $2.4 billion worth of products were sold with a label saying they do not contain ingredients from genetically modified organisms, but the claim wasn’t backed by any government regulatory agency. Instead, it came from the Non-GMO Project, …

(New York Times) Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, on Friday became the first retailer in the United States to require labeling of all genetically modified foods sold in its stores, a move that some experts said could radically alter the food …

(Huffington Post) Whole Foods has announced that by 2018, all products in U.S. and Canada stores must be labeled if they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is the first national grocery store to set a deadline from GMO labeling. …

(Huffington Post) I am often asked about why GE ingredients should be present on our food labels, as well as whether the government actually has the power and responsibility to label. In a recent presentation at TEDxManhattan, I tried to …

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(TakePart) The defeat of California’s Proposition 37 last November was a low point for the anti-GMO movement. The loss at the polls came after months of massive spending by Big Food entities, which is widely attributed to the proposition’s plumetting polling numbers …

(USA Today) The latest video compilation featuring stars (those are always kind of fun, don’t you think?) comes from Just Label It, a coalition of 600 organizations dedicated to the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. Michael J. Fox, Julie …

Gary Hirshberg, Just Label It’s Chairman, appeared on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher in October 2012.  The interview covered the Prop 37 debate, how GMOs impact more than just food, and why we should care about labeling. Watch a …

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