Non-GMO Project expands, as competitors emerge

By Ken Roseboro
Published: October 31, 2013
Category: Non-GMO Market News

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Increased volume, competition, and monopoly complaints are pushing changes at the Non-GMO Project.

The rapid growth of the market for non-GMO foods is creating growth pangs for the non-GMO food movement and the Non-GMO Project in particular. Since Whole Foods Market announced that it would require labels on food products containing GM ingredients sold in its stores by 2018, the Non-GMO Project has been inundated with inquiries from companies wanting to be non-GMO verified.

“We’ve gone from 194 verification program enrollment inquiries in the second quarter of 2012 to 797 inquiries during the same period this year. That’s more than a 300% increase,” says Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project.

Sales of Non-GMO Project verified products grew by 66% from 2011 to 2012, and now top $3.5 billion.

Adding technical advisors

The increasing demand has stretched the Non-GMO Project’s verification capabilities. The project recently announced that it was adding another technical administrator (TA) for its product verification program. Until recently, FoodChain Global Advisors had been the exclusive TA for the project. Now, NSF International, an organization with extensive experience in food safety auditing and certification, will join the Non-GMO Project as a TA in early 2014.

According to Westgate, the Non-GMO Project is also training a third technical administrator and will start working with a fourth by early 2014.

Westgate likens the new TAs to organic certifiers who certify to the National Organic Program standard.

In fact, she says that organic certifiers are good candidates to become TAs because the non-GMO documentation requirements are similar to those for organic. “There is overlap between non-GMO and organic,” she says.

But she also says “any certification body that is really technically robust is a potential technical advisor candidate.”

Competitors to Non-GMO Project

Another reason for adding new technical advisors cited by Westgate was the emergence of what she described as “competing, but weaker, programs and labels.”

In the past year, two organizations launched competing, lower cost non-GMO assurance programs. Natural Food Certifiers, which offers organic, kosher, gluten-free, and other certification programs, began offering GMO Guard.

“We began the program in order to expand choice in the marketplace for GMO verified products,” says Natural Food Certifiers founder Reuven Flamer, who is also a rabbi.

Flamer says that a number of companies are now GMO Guard Verified, and many more have begun the process.

South Dakota-based GMO-Free Certified is another newcomer. Executive director Scott Prentice says the program was launched a year and a half ago, mainly to serve the needs of small independent ranching operations in the Midwest. “Three ranchers wanted grass-fed certification and then they asked for certification for GMOs,” he says.

Prentice says he consulted with two GMO testing labs in South Dakota and an attorney before launching the program.

He launched a website and “minutes later” started getting contacts. “We get about five contacts a day from people worldwide,” he says.

Most contacts come from smaller companies. “They like that there is a second choice (in non-GMO certification),” says Prentice.

Another non-GMO certification program may be in the works. BevNET reported that MetaBrand founder Eric Schnell recently said that he is looking to establish a non-GMO supply chain certification method.

Non-GMO Project is the standard

Westgate doesn’t see the existing competitors as credible. “These are not companies that have experience in non-GMO verification,” she says. “They are efforts to capitalize on the demand for non-GMO.”

Westgate emphasizes that the Non-GMO Project spent years developing its standard and with input from leaders in the organic and natural food industry. The project standard is much more comprehensive and detailed any other non-GMO standard; it is 36-page document, while GMO Guard’s is just four pages and GMO-Free Certified doesn’t appear to even have one.

“Neither of those certifiers, to my knowledge, has comprehensive standards backing up the verification process,” Westgate says.

Whole Foods, the main driver behind the current non-GMO growth, sees the Non-GMO Project as the standard for non-GMO. Errol Schweizer, Whole Foods’ executive global grocery coordinator, says it makes sense to have one standard instead of several, which fair trade has.

However, some industry members speaking on the condition of anonymity have complained that they see the Non-GMO Project as a monopoly, with no other alternatives for non-GMO certification.

“That is certainly a concern we’ve heard over the years as well, which is one reason we are bringing in more technical administrators,” Westgate says.

Non-GMO certification not new

Non-GMO certification programs aren’t new. Cert ID was one of the first pioneers with its non-GMO certification program launched in 1999. Cert ID operates primarily in Europe, South America, India, Japan, and Australia. Cert ID certified products include large volumes of non-GMO soy from Brazil exported to the European Union and soy lecithin produced in India. The ProTerra certification program focuses on sustainable practices that include non-GMO. The ProTerra Foundation, which administers the certification, estimated that it would certify four million tons of sustainable, non-GMO soy and derivatives from Brazil this year.

In the US, the Association of Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) administers an Identity Preserved (IP) program to preserve the non-GMO identity of grains such as corn and soybeans. The AOSCA program is offered by crop improvement associations found in most US states.

In addition, some GMO testing labs issue their own non-GMO or IP certificates based on the needs of their client’s customers or marketplace.

The problem is that there is no commonly recognized international standard for “non-GMO.” The Non-GMO Project has tried to fill that void in North America.

Pearce Smith, laboratory manager at Eurofins, says that creating an international non-GMO standard would be difficult. “There’s certainly a great need for a common standard, but it would be difficult when different laws define GMOs differently. It’s a vexing question for industry,” Smith said.

USDA finalizing labeling guidelines

Another potential challenge in the world of non-GMO verification is the US Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement that it would finalize its 2001 guidance document on voluntary labeling of GMO and non-GMO products in 2014.

The impact of the FDA’s guidance document on the growing number of food products bearing the Non-GMO Project Verified label—as well as other non-GMO labeled products—remains to be seen.

Westgate described the guidance document as “incredibly outdated.” It discourages the use of acronyms such as non-GMO and recommends the use of phrases such as “This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered.”

“I can see the value in the FDA updating the guidance to reflect the current realities and market conditions,” Westgate says.

She hopes the FDA will work with the non-GMO industry on the guidance. “I hope that there will be adequate time for proper public comment and appropriate channels for stakeholders to provide input,” she says.


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