The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service for the first time used the department’s existing Process Verified Program to work with an unnamed global company to develop testing and verification processes to confirm its corn and soy beans are not genetically engineered so that the company could label its products as such, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack told employees in a May 1 letter.
“While the Process Verified Program itself is not a new program, this is the first non-GMO/GE claim verified through USDA … and other companies are already lining up to take advantage of this service,” Vilsack wrote in the letter.
He explained that AMS works with companies “to develop an auditing solution” that “assures consumers that marketing claims made by food companies have been verified by an independent third-party.”
The service is not free, and USDA does not set the standards by which companies are measured, a USDA spokesman clarified. Rather it verifies companies are meeting their own standards, although the department will help companies create those processes and standards, he said.
Products with claims verified by AMS bear the recognizable and trusted red, white and blue USDA Process Verified shield, the spokesman said, noting that this shield is used by other AMS verified claims unrelated to GMOs, such as when products are humanly raised or made without antibiotics.
According to AMS documents, most Process Verified claims currently are related to meats and agriculture products, but the spokesman said, "as long as we can verify the standard has been met from start to finish, we could verify a claim for a company on a finished product."
He added that "it is important to note that [the] Process Verified Program is a voluntary program," and "the claims associated with Process Verified Programs, like all food labeling claims, are regulated by either USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure they are truthful and not misleading."
Vilsack underscored in the letter that such certification icons on labels help businesses differentiate their products in the market place “Today’s label-conscious consumers often rely on labels to get information about their food.”
Currently no other government verification label certifies a product as only non-GMO. The USDA’s certified organic verification includes a provision that the product also is non-GMO, but is not an option for the many non-GMO products which are not organic.
As a result many companies make uncertified non-GMO claims, leaving consumers to take them at their word, said Greg Jaffe, head of Center for Science in the Public Interest's biotechnology project. He added, “To the extent this program and USDA allows consumers to understand the claims they are getting are legitimate, that is an important thing.”
In addition, he noted the “extent to which the USDA can make sure those claims also are not misleading and don’t suggest that somehow that non-GMO food is safer or better for consumers [than genetically engineered food] that would also be a positive thing.”
Officials at FDA and USDA have said multiple times that genetically engineered food is safe to eat, and seeing a certification seal from USDA could help untangle the consumer’s right to know what is in food from concerns about safety.
Private certification alternatives
Many companies also certify their products are non-GMO with help from private companies, including The Non-GMO Project, which likely is the most well recognized certifier in the space with an iconic label featuring a butterfly and checkmark.
The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit dedicated to ensuring the sustained availability of non-GMO food and products, and a resource for companies that want to make non-GMO products.
It also worked with USDA several years ago to create a certification process and non-GMO label for meat and liquid eggs. Labels for these products must be approved by USDA before use, which meant the USDA needed to verify and approve the Non-GMO Project’s certification process for these products before they could bear the label.
The Non-GMO Project Verified logo also carries an anti-genetic engineering connotation for some. The non-profit’s website includes information that questions the safety of GMOs, such as noting that more than 60 countries around the world significantly restrict or ban the production and sale of GMOs. It also points to a “growing body of evidence [that] connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights,” according to website.
While many companies that sell non-GMO products agree with these concerns, some companies that make both non-GMO and GE foods might find this off-putting and prefer a route to verification from a source, such as USDA, that does not also question the safety of GE.
USDA’s move signals capability to support national labeling
By creating a non-GMO claim verification process, USDA has added fuel to the ongoing debate about GMO labeling that includes conflicting legislation at the national and state levels.
The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food says USDA’s “move is another important reminder of the need for bipartisan Safe & Accurate Food Labeling Act,” a key component of which is a requirement that the department establish a national GMO certification program that would apply to all food nationwide.
Staunch advocates for GMO labeling say this Act does not go far enough, because like USDA’s current GMO verification process, it does not mandate labeling and it would prohibit individual states from doing so.
Vermont, on the other hand, passed a state law mandating labeling that should go into effect next year.
Upcoming May 20 forum on going non-GMO
Companies weighing whether to use only non-GMO ingredients can learn more about the verification process and certification options at FoodNavigator-USA’s upcoming Going Non-GMO Forum May 20 at 11:30 EDT.
During the free 60 minute discussion experts, including a representative from the Non-GMO Project, will discuss the market potential for going non-GMO, the current legislative landscape and how to navigate the process of becoming non-GMO certified.
Registration is free and easy. Simply click HERE.