Good manufacturers are preparing to meet GMO labeling requirements through various means, including laboratory analysis and non-GMO verification.

The Department of Agriculture must develop regulations by 2018 to establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard. Companies will have three options for disclosing GE content on food packages: a labeling statement; a symbol; or a digital link such as a QR code that will direct consumers to the disclosure statement.

The USDA regulation should clarify many of the uncertainties of the Act, including the definition of “bioengineering.” As defined by the Act, “bioengineering” indicates a food contains “genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques,” and the resulting “modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

Under this definition, the majority of crops harvested in the United States would be considered genetically engineered. It is uncertain how the law might apply to non-transgenic gene-editing technologies.

The upcoming USDA regulations must also define “genetic material” related to food. Many highly processed foods could be derived from genetically modified seed, but after processing, the products contain insignificant traces of genetic modification. The regulation could determine that minimum threshold levels should apply to processed food products such as refined sugars or soybean oil.


The impact on the dairy industry

The law clearly indicates that milk and meat from animals that consume feed grown from genetically modified or biotech seeds are not subject to the labeling requirements. However, if a dairy food product contains minor ingredients derived from genetic engineering, can the company still claim the product is “natural” and/or GMO-free?

Genetically modified ingredients in a dairy food typically involve the presence of a sweetener ingredient, such as high-fructose corn syrup, which is derived from biotech corn. In recent legal suits, consumers have challenged such labeling claims on yogurts and other dairy products due to the potential presence of ingredients derived from genetic engineering.

If a milk facility is producing both conventional milk and non-GMO verified milk, changeovers during production should address the potential commingling of product lines. Any contact between non-GMO verified milk and other milk should be considered during production and transportation.


Testing for GMOs

GMOs are constructed by changing the DNA sequence of the plant, So it makes sense to test for GMOs by testing the DNA. Real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a DNA-based testing technique that is considered the gold standard for GMO testing. There are protein-based GMO tests (e.g., Elisa); however, these tests are typically less sensitive than PCR and not appropriate for processed foods. Broad-spectrum GMO tests are used to screen for the presence of GMOs by testing for DNA elements, genes or constructs (e.g., P-35S promoter) utilized during the construction of GMOs. Event-specific tests are used to detect specific GM crop events (e.g., Roundup Ready Soy). Targeting a unique sequence region allows for qualitative identification and quantitative analysis of the specific GMO in a sample.

PCR testing for GMOs can be challenging, especially for processed foods and ingredients as it can be much more difficult to obtain intact, amplifiable DNA for PCR. Several studies have reported that recombinant/transgenic DNA may not be detected in milk by PCR methods. If making a claim of non-GMO milk that includes a consideration of the cows being fed non-GMO feed, it is more appropriate to test the animal feed that is fed to the dairy cattle rather than testing the milk itself.


Third-party audits can verify

Verification is the most comprehensive way to assure the integrity of non-GMO claims. Through independent third-party audits, food companies provide assurance to the supply chain, retailers and consumers that their “verified” products have been produced using systems and practices, which prevent the inclusion of genetically engineered materials and ingredients into their product streams. Non-GMO verification is an audit “trail” that focuses on a product’s journey through the supply chain and on the processes used for segregation from crops through manufacturing.

At present there are several non-GMO verification standards being used in North America. These include the Non-GMO Project Verified and the USDA Process Verified programs. Additionally, some ingredient and crop manufacturers have developed their own proprietary programs or standards. An important difference for food companies to know is that for non-GMO claims, each product must be individually third-party verified for compliance.

Manufacturers should be preparing for compliance now. Laboratory testing and non-GMO verification are important steps for ensuring the transparency and accuracy of food labels.