So if more companies elect to put labels on their products stating that they are G.M.O.-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-G.M.O.” on items that would never be considered in need of such labeling...
Even more products have packaging that simply contains language stating that they are G.M.O.-free. Boxes of the original Cheerios, for example, state “not made with genetically modified ingredients” on a side panel.
Nielsen, which conducts consumer research and analysis, said sales of non-G.M.O. products exceeded $10 billion last year and grew at a faster pace than sales of gluten-free items over the last four years.
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-G.M.O.” even though most 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-G.M.O. label, exceeded only by those saying it was important to buy products without high-fructose corn syrup...
Proponents of labeling note that while sales of products certified by the Non-GMO Project almost tripled last year, to more than $8.5 billion, that represents a small fraction of grocery stores’ total sales of $620 billion in 2013. “Unfortunately, we’re still a long way from the point at which voluntary labeling tackles the problem,” said Ms. Halloran of Consumers Union...
Michael R. Gruber, vice president for federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade association representing major food manufacturers, said its members wanted the Food and Drug Administrationto be the main regulator of food labeling, a role it has had historically. The industry spent more than $100 million last year to narrowly defeat various ballot initiatives to require more stringent labeling, and it is backing a federal law that would pre-empt state laws on the issue.
“The political reality is that we are fighting the potential for a multistate patchwork of food-labeling laws and regulations for G.M.O.s that would look very different from one state to the next,” Mr. Gruber said. “We would like the F.D.A. to provide the industry with guidance.”
“There’s no doubt that the industry is fighting a rear-guard action on this and trying to put it to rest,” said Carl Jorgensen, director of global consumer strategy for wellness at Daymon Worldwide, a consumer research and consulting firm. “But there’s an aura of inevitability about it now.”
Most corn, soy, canola and sugar beets, which are used to produce common food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum and ascorbic acid, are grown from genetically altered seeds, and papaya from Hawaii is largely genetically modified.
“It’s hard for the average consumer to remember, ‘Oh, I need to worry about corn and soy but I don’t have to worry about blueberries,’ ” said Jared Simon, who heads the snack foods business at the Hain Celestial Group, which owns brands like Arrowhead Mills and Earth’s Best. “There’s no easy way to navigate right now.”
“Canola oil happens to be a high-risk ingredient in terms of G.M.O. contamination,” Mr. Simon said. “We felt it would be helpful to make it crystal clear.”
The chips will eventually go through Non-GMO Project certification, but the backlog of products waiting for approval is getting longer and longer, said Courtney Pineau, the project’s associate director. “We’re still verifying on average about 600 products a month, but demand is intense,” she said....
Clif Bar & Company, however, worries that the Non-GMO Project seal has inadvertently created confusion among consumers about the meaning of another seal, the Department of Agriculture’s organic seal. The organic seal, governed by a federal law, is a guarantee that a product contains no genetically engineered ingredients — but many consumers do not know that.
“The organic seal is an assurance that food is grown without synthetic and toxic chemicals and in a manner good for the environment, as well as being non-G.M.O.,” said Matthew Dillon, senior manager for agriculture policy and programs at Clif. “While the intent of the Non-GMO Project is good, they have inadvertently caused more confusion in the marketplace.”
About three-quarters of the ingredients Clif uses are organic, and the company’s goal is to be 100 percent organic. So it intends to stick with its current labeling practice, including the phrase “We source ingredients that are not genetically engineered” in the ingredients list on its packaging, Mr. Dillon said.