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GMO labels for food are in high demand but provide little certainty

Many products include labels saying they contain no genetically modified organisms, but there is no nationwide verification process.
Many products include labels saying they contain no genetically modified organisms, but there is no nationwide verification process.(New York Times)

NEW YORK There are few industry debates as heated these days as the one about labeling foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

And while interest groups and advocates wage war in state legislatures, on ballots, and in Congress over what should be disclosed on product labels, products certified as not containing genetically modified organisms keep proliferating on grocery shelves without any nationwide mandatory regulations.

Moreover, many manufacturers are nodding to the public debate, adding the phrase “non-GMO” to their packaging without a verification process.

“We’ve put it on our labels because it was something our customers wanted to know,” said Hitesh Hajarnavis, chief executive of Popcorn Indiana, which sells ready-to-eat popcorn.

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So if more companies elect to stick labels on their products stating that they are GMO-free, whether verified or not, does that make the fierce policy debate increasingly moot? “It’s an interesting question,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, which lobbies for mandatory labeling.

The shift toward voluntary labeling has also led to a lot of consumer confusion, as different labels, organizations, and agencies issue seals or stamps that attest to compliance with few, if any, uniform standards. In addition, food companies are tacking the words non-GMO on items that would never be considered in need of such labeling.

The Non-GMO Project, the leading certification group in the United States, has verified more than 24,500 products, while the average grocery store contains 40,000 to 50,000 items, some of which are not food, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

Even more products have packaging that simply contains language stating that they are GMO-free. Boxes of the original Cheerios, for example, state “not made with genetically modified ingredients” on a side panel.

Nielsen, which does consumer research and analysis, said sales of non-GMO products exceeded $10 billion last year and grew at a faster pace than sales of gluten-free items over the last four years.

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In a Nielsen study of 30,000 consumers published this month, 80 percent of respondents said they would pay more for foods with labels like “non-GMO” even though a majority of them do not necessarily trust food labels. And 61 percent of those consumers said it was “very” or “moderately” important to buy products with a non-GMO label, exceeded only by those saying it was important to buy products without high-fructose corn syrup.

Granted, the average store is unlikely to carry a full complement of the certified products, while food cooperatives, natural food stores and chains like Sprouts Farmers Market and Whole Foods have a higher proportion of items that have been officially certified.

Proponents of labeling note that although sales of products certified by the Non-GMO Project almost tripled last year, to more than $8.5 billion, that represents a minuscule fraction of total sales at grocery stores of $620 billion in 2013. “Unfortunately, we’re still a long way from the point at which voluntary labeling tackles the problem,” said Halloran of Consumers Union.

Michael R. Gruber, vice president for federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade association, said its members wanted the Food and Drug Administration to be the main regulator of food labeling, a role it has had historically.