After a long scan of the organic-vegetable cooler, Penelope Wall added several items to her cart.
“Oh my gosh!” Wall said. “I’m about to spend $5 on a bag of baby cucumbers.”
She pinched one of the bright green gherkins and added, “But they look really crunchy and I’m excited to eat one.”
Wall picked her way through City Market’s eclectic-but-lightly-stocked produce section on a Sunday afternoon in May. The Burlington mother of two toddlers, who were napping at home, said she tries to shop organic and local. Her reasons include the desire to get the freshest food possible, to support community agriculture and to avoid genetically modified organisms.
Wall’s preference of avoiding GMOs contributes to a market for non-GMO labeled food that’s predicted to reach $264 billion in 2017, according to a 2013 article by FoodNavigator-USA, a publication that covers the North American food and beverage industries.
Allison Weinhagen, community engagement director of Burlington’s City Market, said the coop receives few requests to carry more non-GMO labeled products.
“My guess is that our customers already expect us to have these types of products, which we do, and that some of our vendors are headed in the non-GMO labeling direction already,” she said.
Wall, 35, said she hasn’t done enough research to feel certain that GMOs are harmful, she feels equally uncertain about including them in her family’s diet.
“If it’s easy enough and affordable enough to avoid GMOs, I’d rather not buy them,” she said.
Wall also fits into the results of a national survey, reported by FoodNavigator-USA, of 2,000 U.S. adults. Consumers “most concerned” about GMOs, according to the 2013 survey, were urban middle-class mothers in their mid-30s with young children.
While Wall tries to steer clear of GMOs, she’s not militant.
“I tend to buy organic because it’s non-GMO, but then I’ll buy Cheerios,” Wall said. Her children both have food allergies, and she knows that Cheerios are safe for them to eat. Cheerios claim to be GMO-free but have no official certification.
Wall said she supports a more consistent labeling policy, like the one passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2014. Even though, she considers herself a “pretty well-informed” shopper — she worked for a number of years at Shelburne-based EatingWell Magazine — she feels like it’s hard to know if GMOs are present in a product unless she buys organic. A USDA Organic certification automatically means that a product is free of GMOs.
Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Vermont’s GMO labeling bill into law on May 8, 2014, to the applause of proponents and the threat of litigation by food industry manufacturers. The law, which is written to require products containing GMOs to be labeled as such, is slated to go into effect on July 1, 2016.
As the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association and other industry groups fight Vermont’s GMO-labeling law in advance of its enactment, some small Vermont businesses, as well as the multi-billion-dollar Whole Foods grocery chain, are instead focused on responding to a market demand and embracing GMO-free labeling.
“It’s a growing segment that customers are looking for,” Vermont Retail & Grocers Association President Jim Harrison said during a May 12 interview.
Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture seems to be taking note. The department recently developed a process for voluntary GMO-free certification, according to the Associated Press.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote to U.S. Department of Agriculture employees that this label was spurred by a request from a “leading global company.” In the same letter, Vilsack stated that companies were “lining up to take advantage of this service.”
Whole Foods has publicly pledged to label all food products in its U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018. And some Vermont food businesses, facing the state’s deadline, have already certified their products as non-GMO.
Above and beyond the law
Liz Holtz, owner of Waitsfield-based Liz Lovely, began the process of certifying her cookies as GMO-free in July 2013. Holtz said her decision to certify was unrelated to the passage of Act 120, Vermont’s GMO-labeling bill.
“We were choosing that anyway,” Holtz said.
The certification fit with her vision of responsible business practices. That vision includes offering a range of vegan, gluten-free treats and paying her employees a living wage, at least $13 per hour as set by the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.
Vermont’s law does not require labeling for non-GMO products. A grower or manufacturer could prove a product is GMO-free by signing a sworn statement that the food was not knowingly or intentionally produced or contaminated with GMOs.
State Reps. Jim McCullough, D-Williston, and Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, two of the bill’s original sponsors, said the law was written to place the onus on food producers using GMO technology.
McCullough said his rationale was twofold.
“My personal belief is it is the responsibility for the seller/manufacturer to reveal what their food product contains,” McCullough wrote in an email. “It seems silly to me to require a seller/manufacturer to list all the things their product does not contain.”
Weinhagen, City Market community engagement director, said she supports placing the labeling responsibility on those using GMOs.
“It’s a heated topic,” Weinhagen said. “We look forward to more people going through the verification, for sure, but we still support the legislation. And we think that you should say what goes into the product.”
The state’s GMO law says that no additional verification is required for food that is non-GMO certified by an independent organization approved by the Attorney General’s Office.
Holtz chose to work with third-party verifier Non-GMO Project.
The Washington-based nonprofit touts itself as North America’s fastest-growing third party to offer non-GMO verification and labeling. The nonprofit has verified more than 27,000 products and its monarch-butterfly label can be spotted on almost any shelf in Burlington-area grocery stores.
Ben Maniscalco, owner of Montpelier-based Benito’s Hot Sauce, also chose to certify his fiery condiments with the Non-GMO Project. He started the verification process in September 2013 to show customers that he supported GMO labeling guidelines. He now has five products verified with the organization and two more certifications in the works.
Harrison, of Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, noted that non-GMO labeling bears similarities to gluten-free labeling. When consumers took an interest in avoiding gluten, some companies began labeling their products as gluten-free even if it was never even present in the food.
Non-GMO Project Associate Director Courtney Papineau called non-GMO labeling a “megatrend.”
While there a is a limited list of foods the are high-risk for containing GMOs — such as canola, corn and soy — they can be pervasive in manufactured products, Papineau said.
Papineau noted that some products may seem like they’re low risk but actually contain high-risk ingredients. She gave the example of trail mix that is sprayed with GMO canola oil. She pointed out that only labeling high-risk products could leave a gap in information available to the consumer.
“What we are after is transparency,” Papineau said.
Managing ‘red tape’
Liz Lovely had to wait about six month before the company received its first Non-GMO Project Verified label, said Holtz, who added, “The red tape is a nightmare.”
While Non-GMO Project issues the certification, the scientific review of products must be done by one of four approved companies that specialize in auditing and testing for GMOs. There is a bottleneck in the review process, which the Non-GMO Project is trying to address. When Holtz switched to a new reviewer the process sped up, but at double the cost.
The Non-GMO Project offers no help with finding ingredient substitutes, Holtz said, because of confidentiality issues with other companies. Liz Lovely’s regular cream of tartar vendor was able to find a new source that supplied the unmodified ingredient. The GMO-free version cost only a little more than the brand Holtz previously used.
Holtz — whose 18 employees include one dedicated “compliance guy” — also has gluten-free, vegan and kosher certifications. All those certifications take continued work. For example, a rabbi visits the bakery once a month to maintain the kosher certification.
The Non-GMO Project website states that the price of verification depends on how many products are certified and whether they contain ingredients that are high-GMO-risk ingredients such as corn or soy.
Holtz said her company’s Non-GMO Project Verified label cost $5,000, which excludes the fees paid to the reviewing company for its audit and testing. Holtz spent $2,050 for the initial review and an additional $4,390 for continued monitoring. She noted that the number will go up as Liz Lovely adds new products to its line of cookies.
Maniscalco, on the other hand, has tackled the compliance process for his hot sauces on his own.
“I keep all my records. It was a lot of back and forth with the non-GMO guys,” Maniscalco said. “It was not easy to do.”
He noted that his products have a limited number of ingredients, which makes certification easier. For example, Benito’s Local Tang sauce contains six ingredients, if you don’t distinguish between the different kinds of chile peppers.
Maniscalco said that he spends about $3,000 per year on certifications. Although most of his certifications are with Non-GMO Project, the figure includes two certification with USDA Organic.
Harrison, of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, said it is hard to predict how GMO-free labeling would impact the cost of food.
“There is the cost of the certification, and if you have a high volume of product the cost will be more,” he said referring to the number of different products that one company makes.
Maddie Monty, office manager and policy adviser for Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of Vermont, said that she doesn’t feel particularly concerned that GMO-free labeling is going to have an impact the price of foods.
“By embracing the labeling,” she said, “companies might get access to a new market that could help them be more profitable.”
So far, Holtz said that her business has absorbed the cost of the Non-GMO Project verification, but the certification comes at a creative cost. Holtz said before testing any recipes with new ingredients, she will run the ingredients by her compliance expert.
“I don’t want to come up with something and love it,” Holtz said, only to find out it won’t work. “It kind of kills the creative process.”
Labeling options abound
Before getting Non-GMO Project Verified, Liz Lovely cookies bore the less-stringent label of Vermont Certified Organic, issued by Vermont Organic Farmers.
Holtz said that the state’s organic certification is good for small businesses that sell their products locally.
Another option is for local producers to focus on complying with the state’s law.
City Market staff, for example, have no plans to pursue voluntary non-GMO labeling, according Weinhagen.
However, the coop will evaluate food production processes in advance of Vermont’s GMO labeling law going into effect, Weinhagen said. Although the products at the coop’s hot bar are exempt for the state law, the items in their prepared foods cooler would fall under regulation.
Holtz said that non-GMO labeling could most benefit businesses hoping to sell to larger markets.
“If you’re looking to expand, it’s going to be forced on you,” Holtz said. She referred to the 2018 GMO labeling deadline set by Whole Foods, which carries her cookies.
Harrison, the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association president, summed it up like this:
“If you’re a specialty food producer and Whole Foods is an important customer to you, you’re going to respond to that.”
Whole Foods spokeswoman Heather McCready stated in an email that the company will accept verifications by third-party auditors including Non-GMO Project and USDA Organic.
Holtz said that she didn’t pursue USDA Organic certification, which automatically means that a product does not contain GMOs, because it’s hard to consistently source organic gluten-free ingredients. She added that purchasing organic products are also cost prohibitive on top of the extra cost of gluten free ingredients.
“I’m afraid we’d be priced out,” Holtz said. The suggested retail price of Liz Lovely’s two-pack cookies is $3.99.
Papineau, of the Non-GMO Project, said that many companies are using their label as a transition to USDA Organic.
“Some products contain both labels,” she said. “I’m fine with that. I think it’s great.”
Hot sauce maker Maniscalco has certified with both voluntary GMO-free programs. He was able to get the USDA Organic certification for products with few ingredients. His Maple Chipotle BBQ rub, for example, contains only Vermont maple sugar and chipotle peppers, which are easy to source organic.
Maniscalco’s ultimate goal is to get USDA Organic certification for all Benito’s products, but he said that’s a difficult proposition for a small business. This would be possible only if he purchased larger ingredient orders and found more refrigeration space to store fresh produce.
Monty, of NOFA Vermont, said that she wants consumers to know that while organic is GMO-free, they are not entirely the same. Organic also means no synthetic fertilizers or prohibited pesticides, among other things.
Still, Monty is happy about the proliferation of food labeling.
“Our biggest concern overall is to support consumers having as much information as they can about their food.”