WASHINGTON, May 20, 2015 – USDA has provided its first verification process for non-GMO products to SunOpta, a company that specializes in organic, non-genetically modified and specialty foods. However, a USDA spokesperson points out that this verification is specific to SunOpta, and the announcement does not mean that the agency has created a standard for non-genetically modified foods.   

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) runs the Process Verified Program (PVP), which provides process verification for several types of products, including “grass-fed,” “no antibiotics,” and “humanely raised.” They provide this service to companies — like Cargill, Purdue and Tyson — that request the process and pay an accompanying user fee.

SunOpta, based in Hope, Minnesota, is the first food manufacturing facility in the United States to receive USDA’s PVP verification for Non-Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) or Non-Genetically Engineered (GE). SunOpta will be able to use the USDA process-verified non-GMO label on food-grade soybeans and corn. 

SunOpta says it intends to expand the PVP standards at more facilities across its vertically integrated platform.

“Having USDA verify that we are complying with our standards ensures that our customers can be confident that they are getting the highest quality Non-GMO soybeans and corn,” Steve Bromley, SunOpta CEO, said in a press release.

USDA serves as a verifier for the company’s marketing claims, but the agency certifies the company’s own internal practices based on its documented quality management system and parameters. USDA has not created its own non-GMO standard, but it confirmed SunOpta’s own non-GMO practices through the PVP. If another company comes to USDA for a non-GMO verification, the company may have a different set of requirements for its products.

In a May 1 email from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to USDA employees, Vilsack praised AMS for developing the first PVP claim for non-GMO/GE food products, adding that “other companies are already lining up to take advantage of this service.”

Although SunOpta is not planning to use the PVP label on finished retail products—only on bulk corn and soybeans that go to suppliers—the label could be used at retail, either by SunOpta or other companies that earn the USDA “process verified" approval.

“This development is concerning because it appears that the USDA will be offering a seal that lacks consistent meaning,” Megan Westgate, the executive director of the Non-GMO Project, said in an email. 

The Non-GMO Project “offers North America’s only third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products,” according to its website. To date, the Non-GMO Project has verified more than 31,000 products. Westgate said that USDA’s PVP simply signs off on quality assurance systems that could vary widely, but which could all earn the right to use the new non-GMO verified label.

 “This will be very confusing for consumers and the retailers trying to help them make informed choices,” she said. “For now, the only non-GMO label in the marketplace based on third-party verification to transparent, consistent standards continues to be the Non-GMO Project butterfly,” Westage said.

The PVP program does not fulfill the needs of the proposed program in legislation (H.R. 1599), introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., that would nationalize GMO labeling as voluntary and preempt any state mandatory GMO labeling laws. Under the proposed bill, the USDA would have to create its own non-GMO certification program and corresponding non-GMO label.



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