USDA Organic vs Non-GMO Verified: What’s The Difference?

As a consumer, it can be really confusing how to understand all of the labels and know what you are or are not getting when you select an item at the store. There have even been recent changes to the USDA Organic standards that have left many food advocates suspicious of the seal. Nonetheless, here is a breakdown of what sets the two apart. – Krystle K.

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These days more and more consumers are looking for ways to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food. There are currently two food labels that indicate the absence of GMOs for consumers: the USDA Organic label and the Non-GMO Project Verified seal.

As a local supporter of transparency in our food system, we think it’s great that consumers are able to make informed decisions about GMOs through both the Non-GMO Project and USDA Organic certification.

When you’re comparing products at the grocery store, you might be wondering – what’s the difference between these two labels, and what do they mean in terms of GMO avoidance? Here’s a general overview of the two labels and their verification processes.

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The National Organic Program is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Their organic certification is a process-based certification that requires farmers and producers to follow approved methods in order to achieve organic certification.

GMOs are prohibited from certified organic products, which means farmers are not allowed to grow produce from GMO seeds, their animals can’t eat GMO feed, and organic food producers can’t use GMO ingredients.

Certified organic farms and facilities follow a site-specific organic system plan and are inspected annually by third party organic inspectors to ensure compliance. In order to fulfill the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must prove that they aren’t using GMOs in any part of their production and are utilizing approved practices to protect their products or crops.

All USDA certified organic produce, grains, meats, and processed foods do not allow the use of GMOs.

What does the organic certification mean?

  • Processed foods with 95%-100% certified organic ingredients can be certified to use the USDA Organic Seal. The other 5% like salt and water cannot contain GMOs.
  • Prohibits use of chemical fertilizers, synthetic substances, irradiation, sewage sludge, or GMOs in organic production.
  • Prohibits antibiotic and synthetic hormone use in organic meat and poultry.
  • Requires 100% organic feed for organic livestock.
  • Verification is maintained through 3rd party inspectors’ annual site inspections, organic system plan review, and residue testing.*

*Residue testing is only done when inspectors are concerned that farms or businesses have used prohibited substances or methods. Tests can be random or risk-based, but are not mandatory.

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The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that independently offers GMO test verification and labeling for non-GMO products. Their verification is process-based, using traceability, segregation, and testing to ensure compliance with their standards.

Companies looking to receive the Non-GMO Project stamp must follow the project’s standards of best practices and have product testing conducted at various stages of production, anywhere from the field to the packaging facility.

Despite their inspection process, the project can’t legally claim products to be “GMO free” because the contamination risks to seeds, crops, and ingredients are too high. However, they’re the only organization offering independent verification of testing for GMO products in the US and Canada.

What does the Non-GMO Project’s Verification Process require?

  • Requires ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients – any ingredient that is grown commercially in GMO form must be tested prior to use in a verified product.
  • They use an Action Threshold of 0.9%. This is in alignment with laws in the European Union, where any product containing more than 0.9% GMO must be labeled.
  • Absence of all GMOs is the target for all Non-GMO Project Standard compliant products. Continuous improvement towards achieving this goal must be part of the Participant’s quality management systems.
  • After the test, they require rigorous traceability and segregation practices to be followed in order to ensure ingredient integrity through to the finished product.
  • For low-risk ingredients, they conduct a review of ingredient specification sheets to determine absence of GMO risk.
  • Verification is maintained through an annual audit, along with onsite inspections for high-risk products.

Key Differences Between the Labels:

 

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What’s the Best Way to Avoid GMOs?

Both USDA organic certification and the Non-GMO Project seal are great methods for avoiding GMOs. Furthermore, both labels are helping to provide greater transparency for consumers about what’s in their food and how it’s being produced.

Beyond banning GMOs in fresh and processed organic foods, the USDA organic certification takes a holistic approach to the health of our food system and food producers. Organic products are produced without the use of synthetic chemicals, which are dangerous for farmers, consumers, our land, and our water systems. These extra steps help to promote a sustainable and safe food system.

The Non-GMO Project’s strict set of standards and guidelines, including multi-level testing, ensures that companies and producers are avoiding GMOs in all aspects of production. The Non-GMO Project also provides education to the public about the risks associated with GMOs, the importance of labeling, and tips about how to best avoid them.

 Go Organic for Unprocessed Foods

 

Unfortunately, the Non-GMO Project only verifies meats and processed foods commonly found in the center aisles of the grocery store. Due to the lack of verification for fresh produce, buying certified organic produce is the only way to avoid GMOs in your fresh foods.

Since the US government does not enforce the labeling of GMOs for all food producers, the Non-GMO Project is filling a much-needed void. Choosing any product that has been verified by The Non-GMO Project is a safe bet for avoiding GMOs, and it’s the only safeguard against GMOs when not buying organic.

Check out these resources for more information:

 

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