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Non-GMO Update

In the continuing story of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), a strong trend is the growing concerns among consumers about understanding where their food comes from and under what conditions it was produced. Issues such as sustainability, social justice, environmental responsibility, etc. are moving to the forefront and various forms of third-party certification will likely play a role in assuring consumers that the products they eat are in alignment with their personal values, said Kenneth Ross, CEO of Iowa-based Global ID Group, which provides certification and consulting services to ingredient suppliers. To that end, there are a number of states with pending legislation or voter referendums related to non-GMO labeling, including Oregon, which will have a referendum in November, Ross pointed out.

A cause for uncertainty is the difference between non-GMO and organic and consumer confusion between the two, noted George Pontiakos, president and CEO of California-based BI Nutraceuticals, an ingredient supplier. “Those in the industry, especially the Organic Trade Association (OTA), are concerned that consumers believe they are an apples-to-apples comparison when they are not. A non-GMO product does not necessarily mean it is organic, but an organic product does mean it is non-GMO—in order for a product to be organic, it cannot be genetically engineered (GE). This is of particular interest as the Non-GMO Project Verified label continues to increase in popularity.” 

On a separate front, according to Ross, everyone in the food industry is concerned about the costs of certifying various aspects of food production and retailing. “Everyone is also concerned about consumer information overload and the limited real estate on products for more labels or seals,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it is likely that more, rather than less, certification will be required in the future. A major reason for this is the globalization of the world’s food supply. Americans are eating foods from all over the world and only a very small percentage of food imports are inspected. Also, recent legislation such as the Food Safety Modernization ACT (FSMA) requires greater scrutiny of imported and domestic food products.” 

Growing Demand 

Natural product suppliers and manufacturers are involved in the issue of non-GMO for a variety of reasons, but ultimately, it comes down to customer demand. “Since the beginning, NOW Foods has been committed to providing our customers with natural products. We have always classified GMO crops as outside the realm of natural,” said Aaron Secrist, director of quality assurance/quality control and research and development with the Illinoisbased manufacturer.

“NOW’s goal is to have all of our 1,400-plus products assured non- GMO,” he said. “We would like to see increased farming of non-GMO crops and even a ban on GMO crops for human consumption and animal feed. This would help us reach our ultimate goal of having every single product we sell be assured to be from non-GMO sources. By expanding our offerings whenever we can source additional documented non-GMO-sourced ingredients, we are encouraging producers to offer more ingredients that meet our definition of natural.” 

NOW goes to great lengths to offer non-GMO products, according to Secrist. “Last year we introduced our Living Now line of non-GMO, glutenfree and allergy-friendly baking mixes, flours and ancient grains. As of the first of this year we achieved our goal of manufacturing our entire line of branded food products with validated non- GMO ingredients. We are also making strides in our dietary supplement line to offer non-GMO products. We have calculated that at least 75 percent of our supplements can already be non- GMO assured and we are working on documenting the rest. Sourcing non- GMO ingredients is a priority across all of our product lines.” 

At California-based supplier InterHealth Nutracteuticals, “Ultimately, InterHealth’s goal is the give the consumers what they want,” said Paul Dijkstra, company CEO. “We will continue to strive to have all of our ingredients pass through non-GMO testing.” He added the company’s ingredients UC-II, Super CitriMax, ChromeMate, Meratrim and ZMA were all tested to provide more transparency to InterHealth’s customers and ultimately to consumers. “We will continue non-GMO testing on our other brands as part of a non-GMO initiative InterHealth started in 2013.” 

Dijkstra added that the company is making diligent efforts to supply non- GMO products to its customers. “We knew that verifying non-GMO status of our leading brands would be essential to food and beverage as well as dietary supplement manufacturers as consumer awareness and demand for non-GMO ingredients increases.” 

For BI Nutraceuticals, the largest supplier of botanical ingredients in the U. S. for the use in dietary supplements, foods and beverages, pharmaceuticals, personal care, and pet care products, providing non-GMO ingredients is essential, but elementally easy. “We manufacture and supply hundreds of products including botanical powders, teas, extracts, vitamin mineral blends, amino acids, and much more,” said Pontiakos. “Some of our customers are already completely non-GMO, planning to be, or launching a non-GMO product line to meet the consumer demands. They are now requesting proof that the ingredients we manufacture and supply are not genetically modified. Fortunately, our ingredients are inherently non-GMO and have been which means no changes are needed of us to meet the new demands of our customers. However, it is ultimately up to our customer’s discretion whether the consumer packaged good is non-GMO or not.” 

Non-GMO Surety 

NOW has developed a non-GMO Assurance Process, defined by NOW’s very stringent quality standards, that involves documentation and testing, Secrist explained, adding that the company works with the Non-GMO Project that provides third-party verification obtained through a combination of facility audits and supply-chain verification for each product.

“Supplements have proven to be a greater challenge compared to conventional foods as supplements generally have multiple ingredients in the formulas including highly processed excipients that would show as ‘non-detect’ for GMO content but may be derived from soy or corn which are high risk ingredients for GMO,” Secrist said. “Excipients in particular seem to be more difficult to obtain non-GMO documentation at this time due to a lack of an audit trail, but we are working with and pushing our vendors on this issue.” 

The areas of biggest challenge, according to Secrist, are key ingredients such as soy and corn, where crops are aggregated and then highly processed, making source identification very difficult. However, they can be tested to determine if they are GMO-free.

“Gelatin capsules are another challenge, for both hard shell two-piece and soft gels, because it is difficult to verify that the animals were fed non- GMO feed,” he continued. “This difficulty is implicitly acknowledged by the many state GMO-labeling bills that typically do not address labeling of animal products based on their feed. This same challenge exists for other animal-derived products. We are able to use Non-GMO Project Verified vegetarian capsules from Capsugel in many of our products.” 

Secrist said probiotics can also be a challenge because, while these organisms are typically non-GMO, some may be produced in natural growth media containing nutrients derived from soy or corn. “This makes some of these products more difficult to verify, though they do meet European Union and the typical state bills’ standards for labeling as non-GMO.”

In addition, finished product manufacturers must rely on their supply chain for change. “Although they are the ones in the public eye, change can only come from the bottom up. The issue of GMO products ultimately comes down to the ingredient suppliers and a majority of the current supplier base is not prepared to make that change,” said Pontiakos. “Supplement manufacturers would need to invest in educating suppliers who do not have non-GMO resources and verification processes already in place. However, even if the supplement manufacturer invests in a supplier’s education, it does not guarantee their full cooperation and capital investment. GMO labeling regulations will force supplement manufacturers to narrow down their supplier base to those that have an understanding of non-GMOs, heavy investments in testing and quality, and a strict vendor qualification program.” Other challenges include:

• GMO testing is difficult to perform.

• Labeling regulations would be more difficult to interpret for dietary supplements. Dietary supplements usually contain intricate blends, require additional substances for their manufacturing processes, etc. For instance, citric acid, which acts an excipient and most substrates for probiotics, comes from corn.

• Different regulations on GMO labeling across state lines will complicate product distribution.

• Last, but certainly not least, cost will increase.

Do Consumers Care?

With all the challenges and hurdles to achieve non-GMO status, what do consumers think about the subject? Recently, the answer is changing to “yes!,” said Ross. “In fact, a 2013 study from the Natural Marketing Institute shows that 63 percent of LOHAS and 48 percent of conventional consumers in the U.S. are concerned about GMOs,” he said. “Likewise, a study by the Hartman Group in 2013 found that 39 percent of conventional consumers cited GMOs as one of the top three things they were looking to avoid when they went grocery shopping. A 2012 study from NMI shows that when questioned, consumers worldwide reported being concerned about genetically engineered foods at the following rates: 50 percent in Brazil, 61 percent in China, 49 percent in Germany, 39 percent in India, 29 percent in Japan, 66 percent in Russian, 49 percent in South Africa and 34 percent in the UK.

“There are a variety of reasons that a consumer might desire non-GMO products,” Ross continued. “For example, consumers might have health concerns related to eating GMOs, concerns about the impact of GMOs on the environment such as butterflies and bees, concerns around the impact of GMOs on the health of animals, concerns about the direction of agriculture being concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies, or all of the above,” he said. “Those who are concerned mostly about human health issues want to make sure that the foods they consume are not directly GMOs, but may not care that the meat or dairy products they consume were derived from animals that were fed GMOs. Those who care about animal welfare may not want to eat any product derived from an animal that has been fed GMOs.” 

“Consumers care a lot about GMO issues,” added Secrist. “They want accurate labeling and they want access to non-GMO products. Much of this has been driven by social media, which has helped to mainstream understanding of GMO issues.” 

The impact has hit the core mission of the natural products industry. “The quick rise of non-GMO labeling in consumer popularity is putting pressure on finished product manufacturers and retailers to adopt non-GMO products and policies. The perfect example is Whole Foods and their mission for complete GMO transparency by 2018. The Non-GMO Project has verified more than 13,000 products since 2005 and is the second most prevalent marketing claim behind gluten free.”

GMOs and the NPA: Interview with Daniel Fabricant, PhD, CEO of the Natural Products Association (NPA)

What is the latest news on GMOs that the Association is interested in?

We are very interested in the fact that the initiative is moving through the states. We’re concerned that we’re seeing a patchwork quilt regulatory system with 50 states and 50 different labeling laws. On the other side of that, we are always concerned with truth in labeling and advertising. We want to make sure that people making non-GMO claims are making them truthfully and that they are not misleading. Is there is a safety issue? It doesn’t look like that, but we want public health officials looking at and evaluating GM safety and getting that information out.

What is the NPA’s stance on GMO regulations?

The association supports voluntary labeling and possible mandatory labeling, more driven on the food side. For supplements we’re not for or against any proposal at this time and we want to continue the discussion on that.

Does the NPA have a definition of GMO?

We’re working on one. It’s a laboratory deleted or added genetic characteristic, something you couldn’t get from cross hybridization or other modern farming techniques, but we’ll have more information on that in the fall.

What is the goal on GMOs for the NPA?

Get the best information we can so there is no confusion and that products aren’t being mislabeled. And having discussions … if there’s a public health problem, then people deserve to know about it, if there’s not then people deserve to know about that, too. There has to be real science behind those discussions and real evaluations of risks if there are any.

Natural product retailers have made pledges to label GMO products in their stores and even eliminate them. How does NPA align with retailers in this regard?

If that’s what they want to do, that’s fine, we’ll give them information and support. Given that you can’t really get products with corn or soy that are non- GM, there’s a lot of material out there that won’t be available if people make those hard cuts. And that’s fine, but I think people need to understand what’s possible. You might have GM cotton in bottles of products. Does that mean there’s a race to take cotton out of bottles? What does that mean for the consumer and what does that mean for the end product? We want to make sure that people are looking at the issue holistically.

Other comments?

These are the things we really want to talk about with members of congress on [NPA’s] lobby day. We really want people to get involved in the process and take the emotion out of the discussion. Let’s get to what’s best for the community and what’s best for consumers.

Defining GMOs

Consistency for non-GMO standards is needed for regulation. Pontiakos pointed out that consumers are seeking products that have yet to have a precise definition. Daniel Fabricant said, “ask 10 people what is the definition of non-GMO and you will get 11 different answers.” 

“Previous GMO labeling propositions did not pass because of the content, not the idea,” said Pontiakos. “Concise directives are needed to clearly define ‘What is non-GMO?”

According to the Global ID Group, “a genetically modified organism is generally a plant or an animal that was altered by inserting a sequence of genes into the plant’s or animal’s genome to confer on it certain characteristics.” Ross explained, “These new gene sequences may be from different plant or animal species and would be unlikely to ever happen by natural means. The insertion process itself may also alter the previous genome in unknown ways. Most of the plants that are genetically modified today confer either resistance to Round Up, an herbicide produced by Monsanto, or the ability to create an insecticide, known as BT, within a plant such as cotton or corn. As the plant itself produces an insecticide internally, it then becomes unnecessary to spray the plants with external insecticide. Of course, this only works until the targeted insects develop resistance to the insecticide. Both plants that are resistant to Round Up and pests that are resistant to BT are developing around the world and rendering these crop systems less effective.”

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