Organic and non-GMO: Can we trust these labels?

There is TONS to know about labels on food packaging. From nutrition panels to health claims, there is no shortage of confusion about them. Today I’m going to shed some light on the claims about how your food is produced.

These are called 'Method of Production Claims'. Unlike mandatory nutrition panels and ingredient lists, production claims are voluntary. Companies use them to boast about the quality of their product. But they can't pull these out of thin air. The government set out specific criteria that they need to abide by.

A common example is the 'non-GMO' claim. A controversial topic, as many Canadians think GMO labelling should be mandatory. The politics and science of GMO's are for part 2 of this article. First let's start with what our existing labels mean, and if you can trust them!

Organic and Non-GMO labels

What is a GMO?

There are many methods of genetic modification. When referring to food, the process that gets the most attention is called 'transgenisis': The process of inserting genetic material from one organism into another, be it plant, animal or bacteria. Genes responsible for a desirable trait will be inserted into the DNA of an organism we want to gain that trait. An example is inserting a bacteria gene into corn to make it more pest-resistant. Another is the adding of daffodil DNA to rice to increase its vitamin A content.

Simply put, all organic food is non-GMO. But non-GMO foods are not necessarily organic.

What is Organic Food?

Organic foods are non-GMO, but they must also meet a slew of other standards. They are grown without the use of man-made fertilizers or pesticides, growth hormones, or antibiotics. Organic agriculture attempts to preserve the environment and its delicate ecosystems. This is done using crop rotation to preserve soil fertility, plant compost as fertilizers, natural means of pest control, etc.

If a food is non-GMO, it may not meet the rest of the strict criteria for organic labeling. It is a long and expensive process to gain organic certification.

How does Canada label organic goods?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency certifies products that meet these criteria:

• A product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients to be labeled organic and bear the Certified Organic logo.

• Products containing between 70-95% organic content can also state "contains x% organic ingredients" but can’t use the organic claim or logo.

It is illegal to label anything as 100% organic, because it's impossible to guarantee.

The USDA National Organic Program is considered equivalent to the Canadian Organic standards. You may see either label in Canada.

Those organic foods and ingredients must be produced with strict standards including:

• Animal treatment and hygiene: Access to the outdoors, natural light indoors, air quality, and sufficient space to lie down and turn freely. The density of animals per acre is also regulated (e.g. 3 cows per acre max).

• Diet of organic animals: Animals must be fed all organic feed. Cows must be a minimum of 30% grass fed.

Taken on a friend's farm outside of Dauphin, Manitoba

• Prevent contact with GE foods: Plants must be grown in organic manure. Farmers must have a risk management plan to prevent contamination with GM crops. This can include physical barriers, delayed planting, and equipment sanitation. For example, organic apples must be planted at least 3km away from any GM apples trees to prevent cross-pollination.

• No contact with synthetic chemicals: GMOs, irradiation, synthetic fertilizer or pesticides, synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, synthetic food additives or preservatives (including sulfates, nitrates and nitrites).

• Environmental Stewardship: Soil fertility must be maintained through crop rotations.

Issues with the label

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates organic food. However they don't inspect or enforce their rules. They currently have 18 external agencies accredited to do this on their behalf. These are for-profit organizations, and some worry there are conflicts of interest and a lack of motivation to enforce the rules. The CFIA has no direct involvement and relies very heavily on the honor system.

Another concerning headline you may have seen is the contamination of organic products with pesticides. The CFIA does some testing for pesticides in foods to make sure they don't exceed safe limits.

Almost half the organic apples they tested had traces of pesticides. The average concentration of one common fungicide was 0.03ppm (parts per million) vs. conventional apples averaging 0.4ppm on conventional (about 13x more).

A small amount of both samples exceeded the maximum allowable amount of residue. Max limits are cautiously set way below dangerous amounts. Passing the limit triggers an investigation that assesses the actual danger and any corrective actions needed. In the case of this herbicide, the actual amount considered dangerous to human health is 10ppm.

Although most residue was in very tiny amounts, people pay a premium for organic items made without synthetic pesticides. It is impossible to control for every source of contamination. Operators can't control contamination down to 0.0001ppm between water, soil, drifts, or during transportation. While all these things are technically addressed by CFIA regulations, they are currently re-evaluating them after some bad press.

How are non-GM foods labelled?

So this one is fun! By which I mean really silly and confusing. The Canadian government allows GM and non-GM claims as long as they aren't misleading. Something it does consider misleading, is this:

"Claims that a food is not a product of genetic engineering shall not be made for a single-ingredient food of which no genetically engineered strains have been offered for sale, unless accompanied by an explanatory statement, for example, like all other oranges, these oranges are not a product of genetic engineering" - National Standard of Canada

In other words they're saying you can't claim 'false uniqueness'. You can't write non-GMO on the package to make your popcorn seem special, when really all popcorn is, and always has been, a non-GMO.

But wait, I've seen this logo on a ton of never-was-GM-to-begin-with foods! What's up with that???

Well here you have a loophole!

The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit third party certifier. It's the only certification of its kind in North America, and they're very reputable. Their label is on thousands of products and they require lab testing for all high-risk crops. You can trust this label. They're doing great work.

HOWEVER! According to their standard they will certify foods of which no genetically modified strain exists. They will give that popcorn its logo and thus a 'false uniqueness'. Their logo also contains their website, which satisfies the government's rule of 'further explanation' IF a consumer chooses to visit a specific page of the website. So this is still up for debate unless GM/non-GM labeling becomes mandatory.

Why isn't GMO labeling mandatory in Canada or the U.S.?

Check out part 2 to learn about the juicy controversies around GM crops!

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