By Andrea Palmieri

It seems like there are endless ways companies can use labels to promote their food products — sometimes, it can even take up most of the real estate on the package. Labelling the absence of ingredients is in right now: gluten-free, MSG-free, sugar-free, cholesterol-free, carrageenan-free, soy-free… the list goes on. Many of these claims make sense and are mandatory to declare, such as having the list of major allergens present or whether there are trans fats in the product. But there are some labels, paired with certain products, that can seem redundant and borderline misleading.

There is an abundance of products at the store labelled as GMO-free — I challenge you to look in your fridge or cupboard and I guarantee you will find it on something. From salt shakers to shampoo bottles, you can spot the notorious butterfly logo indicating it has been certified by the Non-GMO Project — a non-profit organization that aims to “educate consumers and the food industry to help build awareness about GMOs and their impact on our health.”

Companies can brand their products with this label, which appeals to the all-natural organic crowd, as well as adding confusion for everyone else. What this label does is perpetuate the stigma of GMOs, advertising that non-GMO products are safer or more nutritious than their genetically engineered counterparts, which isn’t the case. It also makes it seem like a GMO is a thing added to food, when it’s really a farming method and/or breeding technique.

According to Canada’s Food and Drug Act, “no person shall label…sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety” (italics ours). In my opinion, the non-GMO seal seems to violate this stipulation by implying that a non-GMO products are safer and more nutritious than products that contain ingredients derived from genetic engineering technology.

Unfortunately, these products can be viewed as compliant with the law since it is truthful marketing to a degree. Tomatoes are indeed GMO-free and can be labelled as such since there are no GMO tomatoes on the market (despite the myths out there). In the absence of specific laws and guidance surrounding the labelling of GMOs in Canada, it can be challenging to legally counter the use of the logo, even if it fits a definition of misleading in some form. Companies can use this to their advantage to further differentiate their products and gain an edge on their competitors, which the certification programs suggest it can do for their brand.

The Non-GMO project has been certifying North American companies against their standard since 2010 and has verified over 60,000 products raking in over $26 billion in annual sales. They work with more than 14,000 retailers and millions of consumers to “provide education about GMOs and to drive awareness of the importance of Non-GMO Project Verified products.”

Their primary source of revenue comes from the fees charged for their Product Verification Program. They are the leaders in advocacy against GMOs, using the guise of “transparency and right to know” rhetoric. Their whole brand is based on the false premise that GMOs are bad, and their website is littered with myths and un-reputable sources. Their “GMO facts” page claims that there is no scientific consensus that GMOs are safe, claims that most of the studies have been industry-funded, and cherry picks a review that raises concerns about the safety of GMOs. Their one source? Center for Food Safety, another organization that is notoriously against GMOs. The scientific consensus is clear and is made up of more than 280 independent science bodies from around the world: Genetically engineered crops are just as safe as conventionally bred crops and just more precise versions of crops manipulated by humans over many centuries.

Recently, the U.S. FDA (which requires mandatory labelling of GMOs) released a set of recommended guidelines describing how non-GMO and GMO-derived products should be labelled in order to better comply with federal law. The agency outlined what would constitute as “false or misleading” labelling regarding non-GMO labels, like marketing products that are not or cannot be genetically modified as non-GMO. This potentially makes thousands of Non-GMO Project foods non-compliant with the law!

We need this policy to live up to the science-based standards that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada hold themselves to.

This article appears in the June 2020 version of Critical Links.