Label lowdown: “Non-GMO”
This article was originally published in May 2020
Q: A couple of years ago, I began to see a new symbol on products. It looks like an orange sunflower with the words “NON GMO” inside it. This label appears on some products not labeled organic and some that are. This is different than the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label, which sometimes also appears on products which are not organic.
What is required, if anything, for food producers to be able to use the “NON-GMO” label?
A: We brought your question to Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, and shared the picture you sent with your letter. Hansen had these insights:
First, he wasn’t familiar with the specific label on that package, and we could not find information about any standards to back up the claim. To him, that’s a strong indication that the label on its own is meaningless. “That’s the thing about labels, right?” he said. They don’t carry much weight without specific standards behind them, or third-party verifications about their claims.
Then, the good news: The product whose label you shared also happened to be certified as USDA Organic. Genetically modified ingredients aren’t allowed in certified organic products, so you’re already covered with that label alone.
If you want to avoid GMOs and your product is not certified as organic, Hansen recommends seeking out products with the non-GMO Project Verified label. “They have a very open process of how they determine what their standards are. It’s a meaningful label, it’s very clear.”
Consumer Reports, in fact, has only two ratings for non-GMO label claims: Non-GMO Project Verified (Excellent) and everyone else (Poor). Details are below. However, other ratings could be added in the future. For instance, Consumer Reports has not yet rated the Certified Non-GMO by A Greener World rating (agreenerworld.org). We asked Hansen to review it, and he noted that while it has not been formally reviewed, a quick look “definitely suggests it’s better than generic.” He also noted that any meat or poultry-based products that have such a label would be required to get the label approved by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which requires an in-plant inspection. With that caveat, here are the current formal Consumer Reports ratings:
Non-GMO Project Verified
Consumer Reports rating: Excellent
Main benefits: The food must contain no or minimal (less than 0.9%) genetically modified (or engineered) organisms, also called GMOs.
- Manufacturers must work with independent certification companies that verify that the product meets the Non-GMO Project’s standards.
Overview: The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that has developed a verification system—backed by frequent testing of ingredients that could be genetically modified for consumers who wish to avoid them. GMOs—short for genetically modified (or engineered) organisms—are created by deliberately changing the genetic makeup of a plant, an animal or another organism in a laboratory rather than through traditional breeding techniques. The majority of GMO crops currently on the market has been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticide and/or to withstand herbicides that otherwise would kill them.
Consumer Reports rating: Poor
Limitations: This claim doesn’t have any consistent standards or rules to back it up.
- Testing is not required.
- Third-party verification is required only for meat, poultry and egg products (such as liquid eggs but not eggs in the shell).
Overview: A generic non-GMO claim isn’t reliable because there are no consistent, clear, enforceable rules for using it, and there is no consistency in how the claim is verified.
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