Project Management Institute

Letting go of the GMO


The U.S. appetite for food free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has gone from a growing fad to a trend. Sales of non-GMO-labeled products grew 28 percent in 2013 to about US$3 billion, according to market research firm Nielsen. The project teams tasked with shepherding these products to market must negotiate a tricky, time-consuming process of securing—and verifying—the right ingredients.

Currently, 64 countries, including Australia, China and the entire European Union, require GMO labeling. While the United States is not one of them, that could soon change.

As U.S. consumers have become increasingly concerned about the rising number of genetically modified ingredients in their foods, both government and industry have taken notice—and taken action. The state of Vermont passed a mandatory GMO-labeling law in April, and major food companies, including Ben & Jerry’s and General Mills, have launched projects to reformulate products to be GMO-free.

“We felt like this was something Ben & Jerry’s ought to be a leader on,” Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s activism manager, told the Burlington Free Press.

When Whole Foods, the leading U.S. retailer of natural and organic foods, declared it would require all GMO-containing products to be labeled as of 2018, it marked a tipping point for many food manufacturers.

“That’s when we decided that we were going to make all of our products GMO-free,” says Daniel Nicholson, CEO of NadaMoo, a coconut milk ice cream manufacturer based in Austin, Texas, USA. “Whole Foods is a trail-blazer in the grocery industry, and it dictates future trends.”

Food distributors believe that, of all product claims over the next three years, non-GMO has the highest potential for growth, according to the 2014 State of the Specialty Food Industry report.

Products bearing the Non-GMO Project Verified seal

Products bearing the Non-GMO Project Verified seal

Managing the Non-GMO Food Chain

For the project teams overseeing non-GMO products, it’s not as simple as substituting one ingredient for another. Even if a product recipe remains exactly the same, ensuring every ingredient is GMO-free means organizations in some cases have to find entirely new suppliers and logistics providers. To achieve non-GMO and fair trade standards for Ben & Jerry’s products, for example, its team had to find new sources for 110 ingredients.

That can create havoc in the product development process, affecting the costs, schedules and risks involved in bringing a non-GMO-labeled product to market.

In response to retailer and consumer requests, Springfield Creamery decided four years ago to have its products certified by the Non-GMO Project, a U.S. not-for-profit organization. “Consumer interest in transparency around what they are eating has been steadily growing,” says Sheryl Kesey Thompson, co-owner, Springfield Creamery, Eugene, Oregon, USA.



Sources: Natural Marketing Institute, The Organic & Non-GMO Report, Packaged Facts, The Wall Street Journal, NPR

However, it took three years for Ms. Kesey Thompson’s source of milk to become Non-GMO Project Verified. That verification is a critical part of the process, she says. For products to carry the non-GMO label, suppliers must verify the non-GMO status of each ingredient. That meant Springfield’s organic milk supplier had to document and verify that the grains grown at all of its dairy farms are GMO-free and not at risk for cross-contamination from adjoining farms, and that the dairy cows aren’t consuming any GMO-feed.


“Consumer interest in transparency around what they are eating has been steadily growing.”

—Sheryl Kesey Thompson, Springfield Creamery, Eugene, Oregon, USA

“You have to chase every ingredient back to its original source to ensure it’s all GMO-free,” Ms. Kesey Thompson says.

After documenting the GMO-free status of each ingredient, Springfield Creamery’s team submitted all of its data to the Non-GMO Project, which has been certifying products as non-GMO since 2010.

The process requires meticulous management of administration and data—and a lot of time. It took NadaMoo’s team eight months to verify the ingredients in seven of its coconut milk-based ice cream flavors. “It’s a paperwork nightmare,” says Tommy Melton, NadaMoo’s production manager.

Containing the Situation

After the verification procedure, companies such as NadaMoo and Springfield Creamery that choose to use the Non-GMO Project Verified seal then have to redesign their packaging and labels to reflect their products’ new status. “Keeping up with the container changes is one of the biggest challenges,” Ms. Kesey Thompson says.

Most of Springfield Creamery’s products require bulk purchasing of containers, so she’s loath to throw them away to introduce a new label. Plus, her design vendor and her printed container supplier require an average of eight weeks to create and print any new art. “It’s a juggling act,” she says. To manage the shift, the change initiative includes a substantial transition period: The organization is putting non-GMO stickers on some existing packaging and transitioning containers as the backlog runs out.

NadaMoo, which faces a similar container dilemma, is working with retailers to post informational signs near its products to let consumers know about the non-GMO status, even if the labels don’t yet show it. “It lessens our costs and waste while still allowing us to market our non-GMO status,” Mr. Nicholson says.

As consumers and retailers increasingly demand GMO labeling, food manufacturers won’t have the luxury of taking three years to transition their products. Their teams will have to leverage lessons learned from organizations that have successfully navigated the non-GMO journey. To cut costs and risks, Mr. Melton advises them to start early and keep meticulous records.

“Maintain files on every vendor, and specification sheets for every ingredient, and be prepared to be patient,” he says. “This process is a lot of time and paperwork.” —Sarah Fister Gale

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