For many consumers, paying a pretty penny more for products labeled “100% Organic” with USDA certification, is worth it for the peace of mind and certainty that they and their families will not be eating genetically modified organisms.
However, most people don’t know that the standard for certification is lax, allowing foods labeled “100% Organic” to contain GMO ingredients, which aren’t disclosed if the foods are sold in the United States.
Here’s how it works: USDA regulations allow 5 percent or less of the ingredients in food labeled “100% Organic” to not be organic—if for some reason these ingredients are “not ‘commercially available’ in organic form.”
Moreover, a product can still be labeled organic if it has been contaminated unintentionally. This is because the basis for organic certification is the manufacturing process and method. The certification does not address what is actually in the food or its nutritional quality.
GMO watchdog group The Organic and Non-GMO Report says more than 50 nonorganic substances have been approved for use in organic products.
For example, in 2010, it was decided that cornstarch could be added to the list of allowable nonorganic ingredients. Corn is the No. 1 crop grown in the United States, and nearly 90 percent produced by American farmers in 2014 was GMO corn.
Soy lecithin, a common food stabilizer, is also allowed in organic foods. Soy is the second-largest crop produced in America, and over 90 percent is GMO.
Therefore, a label stating “made with organic ingredients” could mean up to 30 percent of ingredients are not organic.
Miles McEvoy, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, the body that administers the USDA’s organic standards, explained in a 2011 policy letter: “Since organic certification is process-based, [the] presence of detectable GMO residues alone does not necessarily constitute a violation of the regulation.”
This of course is little solace to the farmers who may be selling GM-contaminated crops with organic labels, and even less reassuring to consumers who will buy these products.
So What Can Consumers Do?
Buying food labeled “100% Organic” is still one of the best ways to minimize your risk of eating GMOs. There are organic cornstarch and soy lecithin available (GMO-free), so chances are that ethically minded companies will use these in their products. Alternatively, you can choose not to eat processed foods that contain these ingredients.
There are also several non-GMO verified labels, which tell you that these products are GMO-free to the best of everyone’s knowledge. However, in this age of openly pollinated GMO crops, contamination is always a risk.
Buying food from local farmers you trust is another good way to minimize GMO risk.