After forcing some companies to change their labels over complaints of the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) now says the “butterfly” label does not imply a non-GMO claim.
The regulatory enforcement change came last year, after complaints poured in from across the country regarding products that featured the Non-GMO Project Verified label, but didn’t meet the Canadian definition of a genetically modified organism (GMO). Some complaints were also filed when the label appeared on products where there are no genetically modified or engineered options on the market.
The details are contained in a large set of internal CFIA documents obtained by RealAgriculture under a federal Access to Information request.
In these files, CFIA staff were told in March of last year that because the Non-GMO Project Verified label is a third-party audit, and includes a website address for consumers to go to for more information, that it doesn’t mean consumers will see it as a non-GMO claim.
Confusing? I certainly get lost in the government-speak translation.
It all comes down to a national standard in Canada that says if there aren’t genetically-engineered varieties available for a product’s ingredient(s), you can’t label it as non-GMO without a descriptor. For example, since there are no GMO oranges on the market, a non-GMO claim would have to state something along the lines of “like all oranges, these oranges are not a product of genetic engineering.”
Originally, the CFIA was forcing companies who use the Non-GMO Project Verified label, like Post, the makers of Shredded Wheat, to add this qualifying “like all…” clause to their labels.
Resistance from food marketers
Some producers, packers, and distributors resisted the CFIA’s label enforcement, arguing they should be allowed to use the Non-GMO Project Verified label. Looking for direction on how to handle the label, inspectors began to slow their enforcement.
For example, in notes from a CFIA specialist’s visit to Westmoreland Greenhouse Marketing in southern Ontario in March 2017, the CFIA staff person wrote that a representative from Westmoreland, which markets produce under the Topline Farms brand, said they paid for their Non-GMO Project Verified certification, so they should be able to use it. “If CFIA makes them take it off or add another statement, they will have a huge legal battle,” say the specialist’s handwritten notes.
In an e-mail from Topline Farms, the farm representative says “I do not believe we are doing anything wrong in our labelling as there are GMO alternatives available for grape tomatoes, and we are differentiating our product.”
University of Waterloo microbiologist and professor Trevor Charles made the original complaint against the company for the grape tomatoes label. He says the company’s claims are false and the label is just a marketing tactic. “The CFIA should have an issue with this label,” Charles says. “The marketers want to differentiate themselves when there is no difference at all.”
Another company that appeared under investigation by the CFIA was Ontario-based Riverside Natural Foods, the company behind Made Good brand products. In emails back and forth with a CFIA inspector, the Riverside representative said the certifiers for both their organic seal and for the Non-GMO Project Verified label said there should be no problem with their labels.
“We are not claiming to be free of GMO,” the e-mail says. “We are stating that the product has passed the strict regulation of the Non-GMO Project.”
Non-GMO label confusion
It begs the question then, which CFIA was facing: does a Non-GMO Project Verified label equal a non-GMO claim?
Not even the people behind the Project say it does, stating on their website that “…the Non-GMO Project Verified seal is not a ‘GMO free’ claim.”
For Charles, this is where things get confusing for a consumer. “Most consumers will think that a non-GMO claim and a Non-GMO Project Verified seal are equivalent. It is a loophole that contravenes the spirit of the regulation and that spirit is really important when it comes to consumer trust.”
But consumer trust isn’t all that is at play.
There is, of course, consumer confusion.
Once the CFIA began asserting that a Non-GMO Project Verified label didn’t mean non-GMO, at least one CFIA staffer began to question why. Her concern was that confusion, noting that the national standards state that signs and emblems are not permitted to describe things like non-GMO. “I consider this logo/seal of approval verification to be a sign or emblem,” the labelling specialist writes to her superiors in late March 2017. “It clearly states ‘Non-GMO’ in the organization’s name, its logo, and its website. I am missing something? [sic]”
A response to her questions finally came through in June, stating the agency would be upholding the regulations if a non-GMO claim was made, but that a Non-GMO Project Verified logo wasn’t really a claim, and because it had a website for consumers to get more information, it would be allowed.
When ConAgra Foods was targeted for their non-GMO label on Orville Redenbacher popping corn, a representative from that company said they would remove the non-GMO claim and instead post the Non-GMO Project Verified seal in order to be compliant.
That move didn’t end up happening on some of their products, with the company instead opting for a claim that says “Like all popcorn, the popcorn in this product was not produced using genetic engineering.”
Based on the CFIA documents, complaints over the Non-GMO Project Verified Label were received from Canadians across the country on a range of products, including grapes, cranberries, pasta, cereals, breads, and cucumbers, to name a few. The complaints referred to products that were purchased from major food retailers, such as Sobeys, Loblaws, Wal-Mart, and Metro.
CFIA staff responded to several of these complaints with notices or letters saying “CFIA has followed up on your complaint and appropriate action has been taken to address this issue.”
That action was not explained in at least one letter, while another response described the decision being made based on legal opinion.
All legal opinions were deleted from the documents sent to RealAgriculture, with the exception of a passing reference to a case involving Silver Hills, a BC-based bakery. In it, a products officer at the CFIA noted that “In the past we prohibited these claims based on the false uniqueness argument. However, after the Silver Hills’ legal opinion using the same logic, the avocado oil label with the claim would also be allowed,” referring to the use of the Non-GMO Project Verified label.
What does this mean for Canadians?
So, the question for Canadians and the food sector is this: are we okay with this loophole in the regulations that are meant to keep marketers in check?
If food companies can openly state that they will simply take off the words non-GMO and replace it with “Non-GMO Project Verified” because the CFIA says they can, we are entering a new wild west in food marketing.
How the CFIA translates a label that contains the term Non-GMO into not meaning a non-GMO claim is beyond me, especially when it’s being used to imply a superior product and potentially trying to guilt consumers into spending more money than they need to on food.
If the CFIA isn’t going to keep companies using the Non-GMO Project Verified label honest, it’s time people realize they’ve been duped and turn their backs on the companies ripping them off.