Recently in the news, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was reported as having its own non-GMO seal, which is not the case and is causing some confusion. Instead, a Minnesota-based company known as SunOpta chose to internally develop standards for their own non-GMO seal, which they reviewed with the FDA. The FDA approved; SunOpta then approached the USDA for approval through their program known as “Process Verified,” where the USDA verified that SunOpta is adhering to the rules SunOpta developed internally. In other words, SunOpta is using their seal for non-GMO status, and not a seal developed by the USDA.

It is important to note that the USDA and FDA are not determining whether SunOpta’s standards meet or exceed currently accepted definitions of non-GMO. For example, a third party organization called the Non-GMO Project (NGP) has a certification program verifying the non-GMO status of foods and NGP’s “Non-GMO Verified” seal is shown on many organic products. SunOpta opted not to pursue certification with NGP in favor of developing their own Non-GMO certification. While SunOpta’s non-GMO seal is for commercial purposes and not for consumers, this precedent poses two potential problems.

First, companies with food products sold to consumers could propose that the FDA and USDA approve their own non-GMO seal, leading to potentially multiple non-GMO seals in the marketplace, each with their own internally-defined standards. Without a third party review of those standards, different levels of GMO contamination could be allowed in food products and dilute consumer protection from consuming GMOs. Currently, up to 0.9% of GMOs are allowed by NGP certification standards.

Second, meat and dairy companies – who are currently unable to secure NGP certification – could petition their internally developed non-GMO standards and seals to the FDA and USDA by stating their animals have not been genetically modified. This is a misleading statement because these same companies could still feed their animals GMO feed. Potentially, a milk product found in grocery stores could be labeled non-GMO, yet that company could have fed GMOs to their animals for producing milk.

Always Go Organic

While non-GMO is ALWAYS better than conventional, the bottom line is ALWAYS buy organic where feasible. Organic food products are superior to non-GMO certified food products because organic standards 1) already prohibit the use of GMOs, and 2) prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, which are allowed in non-GMO products.

The use of chemicals on crops is meaningful and of real concern. Why?

According to the President’s Cancer Panel, 41% of the U.S. population is expected to contract cancer and 21% of the U.S. population is expected to die of cancer. The Panel stated that it was “particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.” One recommendation made by the President’s Cancer Panel is to choose “food grown without pesticides.”

Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that pesticides pose a grave danger to children: “… acute poisoning risks (from pesticides) are clear, and the understanding of chronic health implications from both acute and chronic exposure are emerging. Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. Related animal toxicology studies provide supportive biological plausibility for these findings.”