USDA Announces Plans for Federal 'GMO-Free' Label Certification Program

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USDA Announces Plans for Federal 'GMO-Free' Label Certification Program

Federal requirements for labeling foods containing genetically modified ingredients may not be happening anytime soon, but the USDA has announced the development of a government certification for labeling foods that are GMO-free, the department announced last week.

Up until now, there have only been a few organizations providing GMO-free product verification, namely the Non-GMO Project. The USDA’s certification would be voluntary, reports the Associated Press. Companies would have to pay for it, but if approved “the foods could carry a ‘USDA Process Verified’ label along with a claim that they are free of GMOs.”

In a letter to the USDA, Secretary Tom Vilsack said the department was making the move to verify GMO-free foods at the request of a “leading global company” that was not identified.

The USDA organic label, which has been in use since 2002, certifies foods containing a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients. By definition, organic foods aren’t genetically modified. But many non-organic foods are also non-GMO, and with consumer concern growing over the safety of GMOs, the labeling could help to reassure shoppers.

“Companies pay the Agricultural Marketing Service to verify a claim, and if approved, they can market the foods with the USDA process verified label,” reports AP.

“Recently, a leading global company asked AMS 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,” Vilsack wrote in the letter. “AMS worked with the company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim.”

According to Vilsack, companies are “lining up” to take advantage of the program. While it’s a step towards greater transparency in the nation’s food system, some critics say it’s likely another tactic instigated by big ag and biotech companies that don't want to see foods labeled as containing GMOs over fears it will lead to declining sales.

Chipotle Mexican Grill recently announced it had transitioned its menu to 100 percent GMO-free ingredients, and Whole Foods Market has a 2018 deadline for mandatory GMO labeling in its stores—not just on food products, but on household and personal care items as well.

Genetically modified organisms have been altered to include foreign DNA, such as bacteria that makes the (corn or soy) plant toxic to pests, or to withstand large amounts of herbicide. Most of the genetically modified crops in the U.S. are raised for livestock animal feed.

While the U.S. government says GMOs are safe—essentially no different than their non-GMO counterparts—more than 60 countries around the world have banned or severely restricted the planting or sale of GMOs.

While no federal GMO labeling bill is expected anytime soon, several states have passed GMO labeling laws, most notably Vermont, where the mandatory labeling law is set to go into effect in 2016. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and members of the biotech industry have filed legal action in an effort to prevent the state’s bill. A judge recently ruled against an injunction, and the lawsuit will go to trial.

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