The Non-GMO Project, the leading certifier of products free of genetically modified ingredients, is about to get some new competition from a big-time player in the food and beverage industry: the U.S. government.
The Associated Press (AP) today reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed a new certification and labeling program for consumer foods that do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMO).
The new program was announced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a May 1 letter sent to USDA employees and obtained by the AP. Vilsack wrote that the program was requested by an unnamed “leading global company” to “to help verify that the corn and soybeans it uses in its products are not genetically engineered so that the company could label the products as such.”
The AP quoted Visack as writing that the USDA “worked with the company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim” and that the program “will be announced soon, and other companies are already lining up to take advantage of this service.”
The new non-GMO certification is being developed by the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service, which offers assistance to companies seeking credibility for their marketing claims. The paid service allows companies to use the USDA’s process verified label after the agency vets claims such as “humanely raised” or “no antibiotics ever.”
Likewise, certification and labeling of non-GMO foods will come with a fee and is voluntary.
A USDA spokesperson confirmed to the AP that Vilsack wrote the letter but declined further comment. Earlier this year, Vilsack proposed the creation of a smartphone app that consumers could use to identify foods made with GMOs.
While the U.S. government has repeatedly declared that genetically modified foods, many of which were developed to withstand disease and infection, are safe, some politicians and consumer advocates, concerned about unknowns for long-term consumption of GMO ingredients, have pushed for mandatory labels for foods that are made with GMOs. Last year, legislators in Vermont passed a bill requiring GMO labeling for foods and beverages, and pending a legal challenge from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry trade groups, will become law in 2016.
Natural grocery giant Whole Foods has been at the forefront of GMO labeling, and in 2013 began a push toward “full GMO transparency” in its stores within five years. Most suppliers quickly moved to certify their products as GMO-free, via the Non-GMO Project’s verification program.
The organization’s blue and green seal is now found on hundreds of product labels and packages found at Whole Foods, with the exception of a handful of organic brands, including raw coconut water brand Harmless Harvest and Honest Tea, which markets a range of tea and juice products. Brand executives say that because their products already include the USDA’s organic seal, which certifies them as non-GMO, there is no need for a secondary one. Moreover, they claim that a non-GMO certification can be confusing to consumers who equate the label to an organic formulation.