Coauthored by Andrea Canfield and Claire Mitchell:

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS),  the division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) charged with regulating the safety and proper labeling of meat, poultry, and egg products, recently approved the Non-GMO Project Verified label claim for meat and liquid egg products. The label, certified by the Non-GMO Project, is intended to inform consumers that the animal was not raised on a diet that consists of genetically engineered ingredients, like corn, soy and alfalfa.

In October 2012, representatives from the Non-GMO Project, a third-party certifying organization, approached FSIS about potentially indicating on product labels under FSIS jurisdiction that the animals were fed diets without genetically engineered ingredients. USDA spokeswoman Cathy Cochran noted that FSIS “worked with the Non-GMO Project, three food companies, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Agricultural Marketing Service to be sure that the potential [non-GMO] label claims are truthful and not misleading to consumers.” According to Cochran, the agency took great care in vetting the Non-GMO Project’s standards, requirements and auditing processes before giving its approval.

Importantly, the approval of the Non-GMO Project Verified label does not necessarily signal a USDA policy shift with regard to non-GMO products. Cochran explained that FSIS allows companies to, “demonstrate on their labels that they meet a third-party certifying organization’s standards, provided that the third-party organization and the company can show that the claims are truthful, accurate and not misleading.” Cochran added that “[t]he agency…is not certifying that the labeled products are free of genetic engineering or genetic modifications.” Instead, the labels simply indicate that the products meet the standards of a third-party certifier regarding the use of non-GMO feed.

In order for a product to bear the Non-GMO Project’s verification seal, the product must have been produced according to consensus-based best practices for GMO avoidance. As described in the Non-GMO Project’s Standard, those practices require farmers, processors, and manufacturers to:

  • Perform ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients.
  • Ensure that the product contains less than 0.9% GMO ingredients.
  • Abide by rigorous traceability and segregation practices to be followed in order to ensure ingredient integrity through to the finished product.
  • Verify compliance through an annual audit.
  • Allow for onsite inspections for high-risk products.

Representatives at the Non-GMO Project emphasize the fact that the non-GMO verification seal is not duplicative of the USDA certified organic label. Though genetic modification is an excluded method by the National Organic Program, GMOs are not prohibited substances and no GMO testing is required of organic products. This means that GMO ingredients can still be found in certified organic products as a result of accidental contamination. The Non-GMO Project requires product testing as a component of its Standard to ensure the level of GMO ingredients in a product falls below the action threshold. Yet even with the Non-GMO Project’s rigorous testing requirements, the high risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients and products makes a claim that a product is entirely “GMO free” legally and scientifically indefensible.

Currently, there is no federal labeling requirement to indicate whether a food product was, or was not, developed using genetic engineering and only two states have passed GMO labeling laws; however, according to the Non-GMO Project’s Executive Director, Megan Westgate, “non-GMO” is the fastest growing label claim in the industry appearing on over 800 brands and 10,000 products. For those interested in learning more about the Non-GMO Project Verified mark, contact the Non-GMO Project’s Product Verification Program team at 877-358-9420 x102.