the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) quietly approved last month a first-of-its-kind label certifying that meat and liquid egg products are derived from animals fed diets that do not include genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The label, developed by the Non-GMO Project, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, certifies that products bearing the label meet the organization's standards and can be verified by the organization based on FSIS rules for third-party labels.
According to FSIS, the agency allows companies to label products that meet a third-party certifying organization's standards, provided that the organization and the company can show that the claims are truthful, accurate and not misleading and provided that there are resources to help consumers understand exactly what the claims and certification mean. USDA said the National Organic Program is an example of one such third-party certification entity.
FSIS spokesperson Cathy Cochran told Feedstuffs that the Non-GMO Project approached the agency last October about creating a label for meat and liquid egg products to certify that the products were derived from animals fed diets without GMO ingredients. FSIS said it has worked with the organization, three food companies, the Food & Drug Administration and USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service to make sure that the potential label claims are truthful and not misleading to consumers.
"The agency has not developed any new policy regarding non-GMO products and is not certifying that the labeled products are free of genetic engineering or genetic modifications," Cochran explained. "The approved labels state that the products meet the standards of a third-party certifier regarding the use of non-GMO feed."
As part of the FSIS approval process for labeled products subject to FSIS oversight, the Non-GMO Project Verified label was slightly reformatted and will now include text that clarifies how animal products meet the Non-GMO Project standard.
"Meat and eggs cannot be tested themselves for GMOs; that's why we test the animal feed. The supplemental language will help clarify that," Non-GMO Project executive director Megan Westgate said.
Westgate said companies with products certified to carry the non-GMO label include Pitman Family Farms, whose Mary's Free-Range Chicken brand already has 17 approved products; Hidden Villa Ranch, owners of NestFresh brand eggs, and Mindful Meats, whose own petition for a non-GMO label was denied by FSIS last year.
Non-GMO Project verification requires an on-site inspection for all potentially labeled products. Certification requires ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients (defined as any ingredient being grown commercially in GMO form) prior to use in a verified product. The label allows an "action threshold" of 0.9%, which the organization said is in alignment with laws in the European Union, where any product containing more than 0.9% GMOs must be labeled.
"Absence of all GMOs is the target for all Non-GMO Project standard compliant products," the group said. "Continuous improvement practices toward achieving this goal must be part of the participant's quality management systems," and verification is maintained through an annual audit, along with on-site inspections for high-risk products.