These days more and more consumers are looking for ways to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food. There are currently two food labels that indicate the absence of GMOs for consumers: the USDA Organic label and the Non-GMO Project Verified seal.
GMOs, toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and artificial colors & flavors are all prohibited under USDA organic regulations.
Yet, all that a “Non-GMO” label means is no GMOs. Nothing else.
While there are a few independent organizations that certify and have standards regarding the “Non-GMO” label, such as the Non-GMO Project, the federal government has done nothing in regards to regulation and enforcement of the “Non-GMO” label.
Therefore, companies can slap the “Non-GMO” label on its packaging without any need for independent, third-party testing.
Even if a product has received certification from the Non-GMO Project, super-toxic chemicals and other risky substances and methods could still have been used in the production process. Just because there is a new label identifying Non-GMO products, it doesn’t mean it is pesticide and herbicide free.
When you’re comparing products at the grocery store, you might be wondering – what’s the difference between these two labels, and what do they mean in terms of GMO avoidance? Here’s a general overview of the two labels and their verification processes.
USDA Certified Organic Seal:
The National Organic Program is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Their organic certification is a process-based certification that requires farmers and producers to follow approved methods in order to achieve organic certification.
GMOs are prohibited from certified organic products, which means farmers are not allowed to grow produce from GMO seeds, their animals can’t eat GMO feed, and organic food producers can’t use GMO ingredients.
Certified organic farms and facilities follow a site-specific organic system plan and are inspected annually by third party organic inspectors to ensure compliance. In order to fulfill the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must prove that they aren’t using GMOs in any part of their production and are utilizing approved practices to protect their products or crops.
All USDA certified organic produce, grains, meats, and processed foods do not allow the use of GMOs.
What does the organic certification mean?
- Processed foods with 95%-100% certified organic ingredients can be certified to use the USDA Organic Seal. The other 5% like salt and water cannot contain GMOs.
- Prohibits use of chemical fertilizers, synthetic substances, irradiation, sewage sludge, or GMOs in organic production.
- Prohibits antibiotic and synthetic hormone use in organic meat and poultry.
- Requires 100% organic feed for organic livestock.
- Verification is maintained through 3rd party inspectors’ annual site inspections, organic system plan review, and residue testing.*
*Residue testing is only done when inspectors are concerned that farms or businesses have used prohibited substances or methods. Tests can be random or risk-based, but are not mandatory.
The Non-GMO Project’s Non-GMO Seal:
The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that independently offers GMO test verification and labeling for non-GMO products. Their verification is process-based, using traceability, segregation, and testing to ensure compliance with their standards.
Companies looking to receive the Non-GMO Project stamp must follow the project’s standards of best practices and have product testing conducted at various stages of production, anywhere from the field to the packaging facility.
Despite their inspection process, the project can’t legally claim products to be “GMO free” because the contamination risks to seeds, crops, and ingredients are too high. However, they’re the only organization offering independent verification of testing for GMO products in the US and Canada.
What does the Non-GMO Project’s Verification Process require?
- Requires ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients – any ingredient that is grown commercially in GMO form must be tested prior to use in a verified product.
- They use an Action Threshold of 0.9%. This is in alignment with laws in the European Union, where any product containing more than 0.9% GMO must be labeled.
- Absence of all GMOs is the target for all Non-GMO Project Standard compliant products. Continuous improvement towards achieving this goal must be part of the Participant’s quality management systems.
- After the test, they require rigorous traceability and segregation practices to be followed in order to ensure ingredient integrity through to the finished product.
- For low-risk ingredients, they conduct a review of ingredient specification sheets to determine absence of GMO risk.
- Verification is maintained through an annual audit, along with onsite inspections for high-risk products.
Unfortunately, the Non-GMO Project only verifies meats and processed foods commonly found in the center aisles of the grocery store. Due to the lack of verification for fresh produce, buying certified organic produce is the only way to avoid GMOs in your fresh foods.
Uncertified non-GMO claims
New Consumer Reports’ tests find genetically modified organisms in many packaged foods—including those labeled ‘natural’
These claims made by the manufacturer—which may include the words “No GMO” and “Non-GMO”—have no standard definition and don’t require independent verification. Even so, most of the products we tested containing non-organic corn or soy that made an uncertified claim met non-GMO standards. These included Clif Builder’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar and Bob’s Red Mill Golden Corn Flour.
The exception was Xochitl Totopos de Maiz original corn chips. The package read “No GMO” and “All Natural.” But our tests showed that the amount of genetically modified corn in the six samples we tested averaged more than 75 percent. The manufacturer said it uses corn from a supplier that provided test results with many of the deliveries Xochitl received indicating that the corn was non-GMO. When we tested samples from two packages of Xochitl Totopos de Maiz Organic White Corn Chips, which were also labeled “No GMO,” we found that the product met non-GMO standards.
But there are many more reasons to buy USDA Organic food than just avoiding GMOs. Many consumers want to support this environmentally beneficial food production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. Others want to avoid substances that are excluded from organic farming, including irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones, and synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, many of which have been linked to health problems, including neurological and endocrine system disorders, and cancer.
Still another good reason to purchase organic foods is because they’re more nutritious. Reviews of multiple studies show that organic foods provide significantly greater levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus than non-organic varieties of the same foods. They also tend to provide greater levels of health-supporting antioxidant phytochemicals, such as flavonoids, and a 2013 study found that organically produced milk has a more beneficial fatty acid composition helpful for promoting reduced inflammation in the body.
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