Sun, Aug 30, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Slightly modified organics

The Non-GMO Project aims to back up food makers’ claims that their products are largely free of biotech ingredients

By William Neuman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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A larmed that genetically engineered crops may be finding their way into organic and natural foods, an industry group in the US has begun a campaign to test products and label those that are largely free of biotech ingredients.

With farmers using gene-altered seeds to grow much of North America’s corn, soybeans, canola and sugar, ingredients derived from biotech crops have become hard for food companies to avoid. But many makers of organic and natural foods are convinced that their credibility in the marketplace requires them to do so.

The industry group, the Non-GMO Project, says its new label is aimed at reassuring consumers and will be backed by rigorous testing.

“There’s a vulnerability here that the industry is addressing,” said Michael Potter, the founder and president of Eden Foods and a board member of the Non-GMO Project, the group responsible for the testing and labeling campaign. The initials GMO stand for genetically modified organism.

As plantings of conventional crops with genetic modifications soared in recent years, Potter put in place stringent safeguards to ensure that the organic soybeans he bought for tofu, soy milk and other products did not come from genetically engineered plants. He even supplies the seed that farmers use to grow his soybeans.

But many other companies have not been so careful, and as a result, Potter said, the organic and natural foods industry is like “a dirty room” in need of cleaning.

“What I’ve heard, what I know, what I’ve seen, what’s been tested and the test results that have been shared with me, clearly indicate that the room is very dirty,” Potter said.

Hundreds of products already claim on their packaging that they do not contain genetically modified ingredients, but with little consistency in the labeling and little assurance the products have actually been tested. The new labeling campaign hopes to clear up such confusion.

Participants in the Non-GMO Project include major players in the organic and natural foods business, like Whole Foods Market.

Whole Foods plans to place the project’s seal on hundreds of products it markets under its “365” store brand. Nature’s Path, a leading manufacturer of organic packaged foods like cereals, frozen waffles and granola bars, has also embraced the initiative.

The project’s seal, a butterfly perched on two blades of grass in the form of a check mark, will begin appearing on packaged foods this fall. The project will not try to guarantee that foods are entirely free of genetically modified ingredients, but that manufacturers have followed procedures, including testing, to ensure that key ingredients contain no more than 0.9 percent of biotech material. That is the same threshold used in Europe, where labeling is required if products contain higher levels.

Dag Falck, a project board member who is the organic program manager of Nature’s Path, said that testing and labeling were needed to protect the industry from the steady spread of biotech ingredients. His company has been testing for such ingredients for several years and is strengthening those measures.

LOSING FAITH

“The thing is, if we have a contamination problem that’s growing in organics, what will happen one day when someone tests something and finds out that organics is contaminated beyond a reasonable amount, say 5 or 10 percent?” Falck said. “Consumers would lose all faith in organics.”

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